Saints help revitalize city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina

A city still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 celebrates its Saints' berth in Super Bowl XLIV.
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010

The hurricane never leaves. It lives in the flood lines that have stained the city like a bathtub ring that 4 1/2 years of scrubbing cannot remove. It's found in the homes lovingly restored to a pre-storm splendor that abut crumpled structures untouched since the water rolled in. And it creeps into the worn voices that tell of years-long fights with insurance companies, waiting for the money to repair their houses so they might feel whole again.

Rebuilding has exhausted New Orleans in a way the frantic escape from Hurricane Katrina's wrath never did.

"Coming up on the fifth year people have gotten weary and tired," LaToya Cantrell, the president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association said last week from her office, where clusters of purple thumbpins on map show the properties in the neighborhood that remain in disrepair.

Then came this Saints season and the most unimaginable thing of all -- a trip to the Super Bowl.

"It's reinvigorated us and kind of increased the momentum and the pride and joy we feel in our city," Cantrell said. "It's given us that second wind to get through the next five years."

She laughed. Yes, she said, she understands this is a strange notion, one that probably makes no sense to anyone else in the country unless they were here, still living with the broken city that is taking so long to mend. Football teams don't lift people to restore communities. Football teams are diversions. Football teams don't make cities right. Yet, somehow, this one has. And it is why no city has ever needed a team in the Super Bowl more than this one at this time.

Super Bowls are nothing unique to New Orleans. The city has hosted nine of them over the years, mostly in the Superdome, where tens of thousands people huddled in terror during and after the hurricane as the roof crumbled above them. But none of those games, always played by other cities' teams, has meant as much to folks here as the one that will be played Sunday in Miami by the New Orleans Saints, a franchise that had never been to the Super Bowl in its 43 years of existence, and the Indianapolis Colts. Throughout the country, the sense lingers that this should be the Saints' time, mainly because of what happened with Katrina. Even President Obama said he is pulling "a little bit" for New Orleans.

'The power of teamwork'

Around here, people feel like they need the Saints to win the Super Bowl.

Until last fall, Richard Martin never cared much for football. He moved here from New York in the early part of the last decade to escape the gloom that befell Manhattan after Sept. 11, 2001, only to have the top half of the back of his 1860s house in Bywater destroyed in Katrina, not by flood but by a tornado that skittered through his neighborhood.

In the years since, as he wrangled with his insurer and the local Road Home program to get the funds he still does not have to fix the home, in which he still lives, he thought hard about leaving. But something keeps holding him back: a trumpeter on a street corner, a painted newspaper box, a mural on the wall. Inspired, certain he had to do something to help save the city, he got a master's degree in theater education and now teaches high school drama.

Then, when the Saints started the season with 13 straight wins and people talked of something extraordinary, he started watching the games, trying to grasp a sport foreign to him. And he saw beauty in a team that was not built around one or two offensive stars but a whole armada of running backs and receivers, any of whom could be the hero on a given day.

"I know it sounds cheesy, but they have shown us the power of teamwork," he said. "It's not about electing the right mayor or finding a recovery czar. After the storm we were looking for that one person to lead us out of this and we haven't found that one person. That's why when the Saints have that team mojo going you can see how they work together. There's no savior coming here, we have to work together and not fight with each other. The Saints have inspired that in us."

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