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The Comeback Game of the Year

September 25, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The relief helicopter was waiting, ready to evacuate one of the last groups of employees from the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of a week, the stadium had turned from a storm refuge into an unforgettable site of suffering.

Nolan Ledoux, who since 1978 has worked in the bowels of the building as an operating engineer, made his way to the chopper. In one hand was his set of master keys to the stadium; in the other, his Superdome identification card. A security guard offered a tip: "Throw them away, because you won't need them anymore."

A year later, after the first phase of an unprecedented $185-million renovation of a stadium many people thought could not be salvaged, Ledoux still has his keys, his ID card and his job.

The 31-year-old Superdome reopens tonight before an international TV audience when the NFL's New Orleans Saints play the Atlanta Falcons on "Monday Night Football."

Billed as a triumphant moment for a devastated city, the game has taken on near-Super Bowl proportions, with performances by U2, Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls; a kabuki drop -- a large curtain dropped from a hanging rod -- to honor 150 first responders who participated in relief efforts; and a coin toss by former President George H.W. Bush.

The Saints have issued about 1,000 media credentials to news outlets representing 11 countries.

"I've done three Super Bowls here, and this feels like a Super Bowl," said Doug Thornton, regional vice president of SMG, the private management company that runs the Superdome. "The difference is, this one is for the locals."

The typically hapless Saints haven't played in the Superdome since Aug. 26 of last year, when they met the Baltimore Ravens in an exhibition game on the Friday before the storm. But they return seemingly reenergized. They are 2-0 this season after going 3-13 in 2005, when they played "home" games in Baton Rouge, San Antonio and New Jersey.

There was an upside to their struggles. The poor record granted them the second pick in the NFL player draft, and they used it on USC's Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush, a move that largely fueled the first season-ticket sellout in the team's 39-year history.

A franchise that sold about 30,000 season tickets before Katrina sold 68,324 for this season.

"Until you visit here or spend time here, you really don't understand what this team means to this region," said Saints running back Deuce McAllister, who was raised in Mississippi and has relatives who live in the devastated Gulf Coast region. "When you're born, it's like you're born with that black and gold in your blood."

But not everyone agrees that rebuilding the football stadium should have been a top priority after the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, one that left 80% of New Orleans underwater and displaced more than a million residents in the Gulf Coast region.

Critics point to the decimated areas that stretch for miles in every direction, street after street of wrecked houses and ravaged neighborhoods that might never be repaired. More than 1,500 people died in Louisiana as a result of the storm and flooding.

"I feel like there's nothing to celebrate," said Cheryl Jones, who was stranded for two days on Interstate 10 and two more in the Superdome before being evacuated to Houston. She now lives in Katy, Texas. "Once our community is up and running and 90% of the people are back at home, then we can have a celebration."

Karenlynn Bell, who lost her home in the 9th Ward and spent a week in the Superdome during and after the storm, said she would not pay attention to the festivities either.

"I don't want to set foot in there, even for a game. It's more for the tourists, more for the people on the West Side," she said, referring to the upper-class suburban neighborhoods largely spared from destruction. "The evacuees ... you don't hear them excited."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said it was state officials who determined that the rehabilitation of the dome was a critical component in the rebuilding of the community.

"They believe it was a huge economic driver and a huge symbolic effort to be able to get that dome reopened and be operating," he recently told reporters.

During the storm, the Superdome housed an estimated 10,000 people, and that number swelled to more than 30,000 with the subsequent flooding.

Although the stadium had food, drinking water and dim lighting thanks to emergency generators, neither the plumbing nor the air conditioning worked. Temperatures inside hovered near 100 degrees. Thousands of people gathered on the concrete ramps and concourses that encircled the stadium. Several days passed before buses arrived to evacuate them, mainly to Houston.

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