NEW ORLEANS (AP) – As rock bands headlined by U2 blasted from speakers and tailgate parties served up barbecue and brew, thousands of people poured into the streets Monday night for a Mardi Gras-like celebration of the Saints’ first home professional football game since Hurricane Katrina.
Crowds swamped the area around the Louisiana Superdome, creating a huge traffic jam as they sought to forget about the storm for at least a few hours during the team’s emotional return and the reopening of the stadium, which underwent $185 million (?145 million) in repairs to erase the damage done during and after Katrina.
Even with its gleaming new cover, the Superdome remains a symbol of Katrina’s misery. Tens of thousands of storm victims suffered there in withering heat after last summer’s hurricane filled the city with stinking floodwaters.
Amid the desolation, some residents could not bring themselves to celebrate the team’s return.
Irma Warner, 71, and her husband, Pascal Warner, 80, live in an apartment in suburban Metairie while working six days a week to restore a home flooded by 7 feet of water in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood.
“We rode around through the Ninth Ward yesterday,” Irma Warner said. “When I saw that, I thought, how can they spend $185 million ($145 million) on the Superdome. What about all these poor people?”
But she appeared to be in the minority. Downtown offices and City Hall shut down early in anticipation of crowds at the Superdome. Teachers promised to assign little Monday night homework so students could watch the game on television.
“This is exactly what the city needs,” said New Orleans Saints season ticket holder Clara Donate, 58, who lost her home and all her possessions to Katrina’s floodwaters. “We all need something else to think about.”
The Saints and the Atlanta Falcons were both undefeated at 2-0 early in the NFL season, and the game received Super Bowl-style buildup. The Goo Goo Dolls were set to play to the crowd outside the dome. Green Day and U2 were scheduled to perform for the crowd of more than 68,000 inside.
Harold Johnson couldn’t get into the Superdome, but he planned to sit with his neighbors outside his government-issue trailer and watch the game on television.
“I don’t want to talk about Katrina. I don’t want to talk about insurance. I don’t want to talk about anything but kicking Falcon butt,” Johnson said as he stocked up on beer at a grocery store for the cookout with his neighbors.
The Saints have not played a regular-season home game since 2004. They last played in the Superdome in a 2005 preseason game a few days before Katrina.
After the storm, the Saints became the NFL’s traveling show, establishing a base in San Antonio and playing every game on the road amid speculation that owner Tom Benson might not bring them back to New Orleans.
Even now, a high-rise hotel, an office tower and an upscale shopping center stand empty just a few hundred feet from the stadium, with white boards covering blown-out windows. A few miles away, entire neighborhoods are wastelands of decaying houses.
Johnson and his neighbors were holding the party outdoors because none of them had room inside their trailers.
Tanyha Brown of Metairie said her husband was leaving work early so they could attend the festivities outside the Superdome. With no tickets to the game, they planned to watch from a nearby bar.
“This is the best holiday since Mardi Gras,” Brown said.