By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; A01
NEW ORLEANS -- At the moment the Saints won the Super Bowl and New Orleans would never be the same, they spilled through the doors of Sidney's Saloon at the corner of St. Bernard Avenue and St. Claude. They jumped and they danced and they hugged and they shouted to the night, "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?"
Somewhere near downtown, fireworks climbed into the sky; in the section of New Orleans known as Treme, police cars with lights flashing stopped for the party in the middle of the intersection.
White policemen laughed as black revelers jumped on their hoods and rocked their bumpers. Cruiser windows opened, and nowhere in the city once broken by a hurricane did it ever come together quite like this.
The Saints, who had brought this town so much heartache, had won the Super Bowl for the first time in their 43 years of existence with a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night in Miami Gardens, Fla. Trailing 10-0 in the early going in Miami, the Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, slowly took control of the game and then sealed their championship with two touchdowns in the final six minutes.
It had been four years and five months after Hurricane Katrina roared off the Gulf of Mexico and threatened to ruin the city forever. "Katrina couldn't hurt us!" shouted a man dancing in the streets.
Jumping next to him, Antony Dowell of Carrollton district threw back his head and laughed.
"After all the [expletive] we've been through, it couldn't break us," he screamed. "That storm took everything from us but the spirit of this city keeps me here. It keeps us all here. After this, with the Saints, another hurricane could come right now and I'll be back!"
On that day in August 2005 when the storm arrived, Dowell barely survived when the levee broke on the 17th Street Canal near his home. He had to be evacuated by helicopter and relocated to Texas. Months later he came back and rebuilt by himself.
"That's right," he shouted into the night. "FEMA what? FEMA who? FEMA where?
There was something about this Saints team, which stormed through the National Football League season, that seemed to inspire a city worn down by the rebuilding. So much had stalled in red tape. Insurance payments took forever to come, the promise of government money seemed forgotten. The rebuilding that did occur often came from independent neighborhood movements. The way the Saints kept fighting toward the Super Bowl gave people hope.
"It's a gateway for everyone to believe," said Herbert Williams, who lives near Sidney's Saloon in Treme. "It's showing everyone that we're coming back from Hurricane Katrina and showing that this can be a great place to be."
If New Orleans has a sound, it is Treme. It is where generations of children grew up with trumpets and tubas in their hands, where the big brass bands blossomed and where two young black men named Kermit Ruffins and Phil Frazier came to form their own big brass band. They would lug their instruments down to Jackson Square in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral and play for tips with a cardboard box at their feet. They had a sound folks here came to call "the soundtrack of Mardi Gras" and a name that told the city's story -- Rebirth. They recorded albums and toured all the best European music festivals.
Ruffins left the band a decade ago because he wanted to play swing music. And because the neighborhood needed its own meeting place, he bought Sidney's. Then Katrina roared in, sparing most of Treme from the flood but scattering its residents in the ensuing exodus. When they returned, they found the bar intact, save for the big Sidney's Saloon sign on top of the building that had been blown onto its side, where it remains today.
Less whole was their lives. The bar's manager, Kyma Douse, cannot think of the hurricane without remembering the horror of watching from her apartment window as a dead baby floated past in the flood waters on nearby Canal Street.
Which is why on Sunday night, the Saints mattered so much at the corner of St. Bernard and St. Claude and all around the city. Just a mile away on Bourbon Street, people clogged French Quarter alleys in their homemade Saints T-shirts and hats and headbands, clutching beers and twirling black-and-gold parasols. Two women walked around in habits in black and gold, the Saints colors, wearing signs that read "Sister Who" and "Sister Dat."
There has been a passion for the Saints here in recent years. Part of this is because the club has for much of its existence been the city's only professional team. When the storm came and the Saints' home stadium, the Superdome, was the place where thousands of the city's displaced huddled, it seemed likely the Saints -- who relocated that year to San Antonio -- would never return.
Then, when they did return and the Superdome was repaired, it served as an inspiration that maybe everyone else could rebuild, too. At a time when everything everyone had come to trust had failed them -- the levees, the government, the electricity -- the only thing that came through was the team that had in the past let them down so many times.
That hope was muted early on Sunday evening, when the Saints fell behind. But after New Orleans recovered an onside kick at the start of the second half and quickly scored a touchdown, the old jazz sounds bounced off Sidney's walls.
And when cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted a pass by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and ran it 74 yards for a touchdown with 3 minutes 12 seconds to play, making victory a certainty, the unthinkable had happened.
After the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy to the Saints on the field in Miami was shown on television and the dancing was done inside Sidney's Saloon, the men in Rebirth ran to their cars, pulling out tubas and horns. Word flew through Treme that New Orleans's great brass band was playing and a crowd filled the streets.
The police gave up on the idea of traffic control and simply blocked the roads. A trumpet blew, a tuba boomed. They played, "When the Saints Go Marching In" and everybody cheered.
And the city Katrina once left for dead was very much alive.