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Hurricane Katrina as Seen Through the Eyes of the Saints' Biggest Fans

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 19, 2015

B/R via Getty Images

Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 lives, damaged over 1 million homes in the Gulf Coast region and displaced over 1 million families. Many former New Orleans residents still have not returned: The city's population is roughly 20 percent lower than it was before the storm. The impact of the storm is still acutely felt by hundreds of thousands of families 10 years later.

But the Saints and the Superdome remain in New Orleans. The Saints played a full schedule in 2005, playing home games in road stadiums, at the Alamodome in San Antonio and at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. The Superdome went from a "refuge of last resort" to a disaster area of its own during the floods that followed the hurricane as 30,000 evacuees survived fetid, overcrowded conditions for days without plumbing or power. The Saints' eventual decision to remain in New Orleans, the NFL's commitment to rebuilding the Superdome and local fans' dedication to their team in the wake of the disaster galvanized relief efforts, symbolized resilience in the face of tragedy and helped preserve both a city and a culture vital to our national identity.

This is the story of Hurricane Katrina as seen through the eyes of people for whom Saints football is a way of life. Bleacher Report spoke to the season ticket holders, the tailgate legends, the broadcasters and the Superdome employees who had their lives turned upside down—yet found comfort, strength and hope from Saints football in the face of a national catastrophe. 

Before the Storm

Hurricane Katrina began as a tropical depression north of Puerto Rico on August 19, 2005. It gained intensity and coursed from the Bahamas toward Florida, touching down in Miami-Dade County as a Category 1 hurricane on August 26. It crossed Florida and entered the Gulf of Mexico, rapidly intensifying to Category 5.

The Saints, meanwhile, trudged through training camp and a pair of poor preseason efforts. The team was coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons and one playoff appearance in the previous 12 years.

Despite the team's recent fortunes and an approaching storm, a reported crowd of 44,485 attended a Saints-Ravens preseason game scheduled for 7 p.m. local time on Friday, August 26.

Dr. Karen Leathem is a historian and the curator of the Hurricane Katrina exhibit at the Presbytere unit of the Louisiana State Museum.

Dr. Leathem: It's not until 10 p.m. that night that the forecast shifts to the Louisiana-Mississippi border. It's at that point where we know we were really under the gun. People started thinking about the storm on Friday night, but a lot of people went to the same places they were going to go. One of those places was a Saints preseason game.

Soul Saint, who asked us not to use his given name, has been seen on countless Saints telecasts: He's the fan with the Afro wig, gold shades and face paint. He was at that Ravens game.

Soul Saint: We were all real nervous. But we said, "You know what? That storm isn't gonna come. If it comes, it's not going to affect us." Everybody was real optimistic, but it was kinda scary.

Donald Silcio has been seen in Saints crowds dressed as "Gametime Saint"—shoulder pads, painted face, Mardi Gras beads—for many years. He was also at that Ravens game.

Courtesy of Donald Silcio

Gametime Saint Silcio: At the time, we all thought it was supposed to make a turn to Florida. Bob Breck, the local meteorologist in New Orleans that everybody turns to, actually came on the big screen at the Superdome. I remember talking to my wife and saying, "This is serious. If Breck's on in the Superdome then you know something bad's about to happen."

Mike Foster was (and still is) a Superdome security guard.

Security guard Foster: Even if you weren't a weatherperson, you saw the diagram on TV, you said, "This is huge." If you had a weatherperson to describe it to you, the size of it, you knew everybody was in trouble.

Bobby Hebert is a former Saints quarterback. He hosted the team's pregame and postgame radio shows. Deke Bellavia has also been an on-air sports-talk personality since before Katrina.

Former QB Hebert: They made me, after talking about the preseason game—the Saints played terribly, by the way—give longitude and latitude of the storm. I was joking: "I guess I'm a meteorologist now."

Broadcaster Bellavia: At midnight that night, we went into full hurricane mode: No more Saints talk.

Doug Thornton was general manager of the Superdome and is now an executive vice president of Superdome Management Group.

Superdome manager Thornton: Throughout that entire game, unbeknownst to the fans, we were starting to prep. We were getting ready to batten down the hatches: Remove all the exterior trash cans, things that could become flying debris.

Security guard Foster: I left around 12:30. I got home and got the call about 2:30 in the morning to report back and go into evacuation mode.

Evacuation

From the National Weather Service:

At 6:10 a.m. Central Daylight Time (CDT) August 29, the center of Katrina made landfall in Plaquemines Parish, LA, just south of Buras, as a Category 3 hurricane with estimated maximum sustained winds near 125 mph and a minimum central pressure of 920 mb.

From the Times-Picayune, August 28, 2005, by Jeff Duncan:

The Saints plan to evacuate New Orleans for the West Coast today so they can dodge Hurricane Katrina and begin preparations for their final preseason game Thursday in Oakland.

The club canceled its practice scheduled for 1:15 p.m. today and was scheduled to board a 2 p.m. charter flight to Oakland today … Kickoff for the Saints' exhibition game against the Raiders on Thursday at McAfee Coliseum is 8 p.m. The team is expected to return to New Orleans as scheduled immediately after the game.

Brian Young, now a Saints coach, played defensive tackle for the 2005 team.

Coach Young: It was quick. I remember they kept telling us that something may happen. I got my wife and family and told them to get out the house: Just grab what you need and go, because this was about to get ugly.

Gametime Saint Silcio: I was doing a job [installing security systems] at a camp out in rural Mississippi, out in the boonies. The next morning, I woke up and turned on the Weather Channel. I saw all those big oranges, reds and yellows and I told my wife, "We're gone."

We packed up and decided to go straight north to Memphis. It took us about 16 hours to get there because of all the traffic. We were stuck in all that mayhem.

Courtesy of Soul Saint

Soul Saint: Everyone else went to Houston. I said to myself, "The whole of New Orleans is going to Houston. So I'm going a different way." They said, "Don't go to Atlanta, because the storm may come that way." I thought if the storm did come that way, that's a lot of land between the gulf and Atlanta. It'll just be rain if it gets there. So I went to Atlanta. I had a clear shot. Everybody else told me it took them 13 to 15 hours to get to Texas. It took us seven hours to get to Atlanta, which is what it usually takes.

Former QB Hebert: I was on one of the last flights on Saturday. I left at 8:30. The airport closed at 11. There was no panic then. We dealt with hurricanes before.

Hundreds of thousands of residents fled before Katrina arrived. But many could not, for a variety of reasons, and thousands simply chose not to.

Dr. Leathem: A lot of people used Hurricane Betsy in 1965 as a baseline to determine what they should do. When Betsy came, about 32,000 homes flooded. So there was a history of the city being flooded and people getting rescued from rooftops. But other people were thinking of more recent storms like Hurricane Ivan, just the year before, or Hurricane Georges in the 1990s, when a lot of people evacuated. Both of those storms, at the last minute, bent further to the east. A lot of people figured, "Well, it always turns to the east."

A lot of New Orleanians weren't thinking of evacuation the way they are now. They prided themselves on riding it out, their self-reliance. They weren't being foolish about it. They were just drawing upon past experience.

The Superdome

The Superdome had been used as a "refuge of last resort" during Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Ivan in 2004, one year before Katrina. Neither storm caused severe damage in New Orleans—the Superdome never lost power, air conditioning and running water—and evacuees were out of the building within 48 hours after each storm. Still, Thornton recommended after Hurricane Georges that the stadium should not be used as a shelter for anyone but special-needs evacuees.

Courtesy of Superdome Management Group

Superdome manager Thornton: People think it can seat 70,000 people. Yes, for a football game. We're not a hospital. We're not a hotel. We can't house people for four or five days. We're equipped to host people for four to six hours, and it takes 2,500 staff to run a typical football game, with food, water, trash removal, power and all the other stuff that you might not have when you deal with a major event.

With Katrina approaching and an estimated 100,000 residents still in New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin announced at 6 a.m. on Sunday, August 28 that the Superdome would be a public refuge for stranded citizens. Thornton and his team received word of the decision just 12 hours earlier and worked through the night to prepare.

Roughly 375 National Guardsmen and 35 New Orleans police officers bolstered Thornton's skeletal staff as regular citizens began seeking shelter. Among the regular staffers was Foster, who had been at the Superdome since Saturday morning checking in special-needs evacuees.

Security guard Foster: We had to check everybody in. We do the same thing at a Saints game, but it was totally different. You had people with a bunch of bags, people bringing different things with them. You had desperate families bringing things that they need with them.

Superdome manager Thornton: Eventually, the rain starting coming, and it got to tropical force winds on Sunday afternoon. We made the decision to bring everybody inside on the field. We made barricaded chutes, because we bag-checked everyone coming in just like we would for a football game, to make sure there was no contraband or weapons.

The lights and air conditioning were still on. The plumbing still worked. Thornton communicated to the crowd via loudspeakers, and his staff distributed cleaning supplies: trash bags, paper products, even wet mops. Sunday night passed relatively calmly in the Superdome.

The Superdome on August 31st, 2005
The Superdome on August 31st, 2005Eric Gay/Associated Press

Security guard Foster: You gotta remember the mood of the people coming in. They feel when they are coming into a building, they're in a safe haven. They're coming in, they have their stuff, they got checked in. The air conditioner is working. All the water is working. They can use the bathroom facilities. They just wanted to find places where they could feel comfortable.

They were looking at the structure of the building, and they weren't worried. The Superdome had been there 40 years. It had been through all kind of storms, and it's still standing. It was enough for people to reassure themselves that they would be safe.

Trouble began at dawn the next day. The lights went out at approximately 6:15 on Monday morning. Backup generators provided minimal lighting but nothing else. An even larger problem emerged just moments later. Thornton received a call that the Superdome roof was beginning to peel off.

Superdome manager Thornton: I walked outside on the plaza level. I could hear this loud banging noise: metal on metal. I went out into the seating section, and I looked up, and I could see daylight at the apex of the roof.

I was with Lieutenant Colonel Doug Mouton [of the National Guard]. I said, "Let's go down to the field. We'll get a better visual down there. We've got to start evacuating these people because if this roof starts failing over their heads, there will be falling debris, sheet metal. It's 270 feet. It will cut right through someone."

We went down on the field and looked up. It was dark, but you could see multiple places where there was daylight. Every time a wind gust hit the roof you'd hear the metal deck just banging against the frame. It was being ripped apart.

We approached the west side seating section. I was really nervous about someone getting hit by falling debris. Sure enough, we nearly trip over a lightning rod that has fallen out of the roof. A three-foot-long lightning rod, on about the 10-yard line on the playing field. We've got hundreds of them on the roof. They're all over the place. We found two on the field that morning. If those things had fallen over the crowd, they would have killed somebody.

The loss of primary power also meant the loss of pumped running water, and of flushing toilets.

Superdome manager Thornton: I remember going down to the Saints locker room on Monday to take a shower. I knew it was the last time I would take a shower for days, because water pressure was going to go. I had to go in with a flashlight. The locker room was dark.

From that point forward, it got bad. Toilets overflowed. People were urinating and doing what they need to do in different parts of the building, wherever they could.

Security guard Foster: We were dealing with a lot of people who were ill. They were afraid. They were out of their comfort zone. You had to reassure them that everything was gonna be all right. Especially the older people, who are used to being in their own homes. A lot of older people aren't used to a lot of people being around them.

Images of the Superdome as a refuge of last resort
Images of the Superdome as a refuge of last resortCourtesy of Superdome Management Group

I reassured people. "Look around you. We're all still here. We're all going through the same things. We all feel the heat. We just gotta keep pushing forward. We're going to get out of here. You don't have to worry."

Mayor Nagin arrived to survey the scene Tuesday.

Superdome manager Thornton: The mayor said to me, "The National Guard is dropping sandbags, and it looks like they will be able to fill these breaches. The bad news is that you will have to be here another six days." This is on Tuesday, Day 3. I said, "Mister Mayor, this place won't be here after six days." We have to get these people out.

The evacuees remained in the Superdome, facing increasingly horrible conditions, until Thursday, September 1; because evacuation took so long, some were stranded as long as that Sunday. The sight of the first choppers gave the Katrina survivors hope.

Security guard Foster: That was a beautiful thing. You could see it in people's eyes when they looked up. "Oh, we're leaving." You could see that relief. You could see them take a deep breath. And that's the first time they really took a deep breath in their life. They knew help had arrived.

They had been stuck inside a building where it was 106 degrees in the day and sometimes 90 degrees at night. Just imagine a person walking into the air conditioning after those conditions for two weeks. Imagine walking into a good, clean restroom and taking a shower after two weeks. It's like winning the Powerball and nobody knows it.

Foster and Thornton left the Superdome by chopper on September 1. They flew to the town of Gonzales, just outside Baton Rouge, and quickly resumed relief work at a nearby evacuation center.

Meanwhile, the Saints lost a preseason game to the Raiders in Oakland 13-6 just hours after choppers and jeeps evacuated the Superdome.

Broadcaster Bellavia: The only thing I remember that night was that we announced the final score at the end of the game. They basically told us, "There ain't no sports tonight," and rightfully so.

Coach Young: I remember watching the news from Oakland. You weren't sitting around worrying about football. You were checking out what was happening on TV to see how everything was going back home.

Exile

Tens of thousands of New Orleans residents remained scattered across the South and the nation for weeks. They lived with family, in hotels or in shelters provided by relief agencies and local churches. Cellphone communication was down. Credit cards were frozen. Katrina evacuees did whatever they could to piece together some semblance of a normal life, many of them unsure if their homes and neighborhoods still stood.

Meanwhile, the Saints kicked off the 2005 regular season with a 23-20 win over the Panthers in Charlotte. Broadcasters did what they could to provide Saints fans with a little entertainment and relief.

BILL HABER/Associated Press

Former QB Hebert: All the competition, all the radio stations that normally compete, created United Radio Broadcast New Orleans. They came together and set up shop in Baton Rouge.

Broadcaster Bellavia: We were broadcasting what they called "the recovery": any press conference about when you would be able to go into Jefferson Parish, see your home, stuff like that. The first Saints broadcast was Carolina. We went in straight, dry, five minutes before kickoff. National anthem. Broadcast.

Gametime Saint Silcio: I remember listening on the radio to our opener against Carolina. I was able to tune in to 870 AM; it was able to broadcast that far. It wasn't the greatest clarity, but we were able to pick it up. It was super old-school. I had to move to the right, move to the left, get to the right spot, get out the old rabbit ears, don't move, get the aluminum foil. It was like going back in time.

Soul Saint: I got a satellite so I was able to see the games in Atlanta. I had to get that so I was able to see the Saints. I was on the Internet every night. I was watching NFL Network, because they covered the Saints a lot too, because of the disaster. So it wasn't too hard to keep up with the team, even though we were in a foreign land.

Former QB Hebert: Fans said that it was one thing that could make them feel that they got back something that was normal.

Former Saints fullback Hokie Gajan has been the team's radio color analyst for over a decade.

Former fullback Gajan: When you wake up tomorrow morning, you're gonna head right back into cleanup mode. But for three hours, you'll be able to watch a game and forget about everything that's going on for a moment.

The Saints, temporarily headquartered at a high school in San Antonio, played two "home" games at the Alamodome, beating the Bills but losing to the Falcons.

Coach Young: They had a tent with a weight room that was out in the parking lot. We had a little locker room that was set up for us. Then we had a little practice field out at the high school. It was the same stuff we had back home. It just wasn't as nice. But we were able to make do.

Mark Romig is the public address announcer for the Superdome. His father Jerry was the announcer for over 40 years.

Announcer Romig: They wanted to keep as much normalcy as possible, so Dad was asked to serve as home stadium announcer when they played their home games in other cities. He traveled with the team to San Antonio.

DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

Former fullback Gajan: You had some locals show up. It was NFL football; they don't have a team. And there were a lot of people from New Orleans who were displaced. They came, but they didn't fill the stadium. They were just people who had never been to an NFL game.

We would drive from New Orleans to San Antonio. We'd check in at the hotel. The next morning, we would get on a plane to wherever the Saints were playing. We'd fly back to San Antonio. Then we'd jump in our vehicles and drive back.

What made it more difficult for us was that Hurricane Rita came through a few weeks after Katrina. That went into the Lake Charles and Houston area, so there were a lot of stretches of the interstate closed. We'd go from New Orleans to Monroe to Shreveport, all the way to Dallas and then come down to San Antonio. It was about 12 hours on the road.

Between games and flights, Saints players visited displaced New Orleans residents in shelters around San Antonio.

MATT SLOCUM/Associated Press

Coach Young: They were upbeat. Honestly. Everybody was trying to make the best of it. They weren't trying to make the worst of the situation. Everybody knew it was a bad deal. And everybody was doing everything they could to help.

In the weeks after Katrina, folks made tentative forays home to survey the damage.

Soul Saint: I didn't have too much damage. One of my bedrooms, the roof fell in. Other than that, the house was intact; we didn't get any flood water. Me and my son got a little portable air conditioning unit, and we ran the unit to a neighbor's generator. We stayed in the house for a couple of days, boarded everything up.

The National Guard was guarding our neighborhood from looters. When we got to our neighborhood, we had to show our ID to prove that we lived there. Or they wouldn't let us in.

Scott "Sparky" Sparks is known as "the Tailgate King of New Orleans." His cuisine has won competitions on the Food Network, and his Korner Krewe tailgate tent now has a variety of corporate sponsors. Sparks left New Orleans for Arkansas during the evacuation.

Tailgate King Sparks: A couple of buddies and I drove back. We grabbed a couple of very expensive guitars and guns—that kind of stuff—loaded them up. Military helicopters were flying over the whole time. We're in the backyard, and everybody's armed: pistol on your hip, rifle slung. We didn't know what to expect. I'm in a backyard, standing on the cover of a hot tub, all of a sudden I look up and there's a helicopter hovering over me. I'm standing there with a rifle. I'm hoping he's not putting those crosshairs on me.

Coach Young: We had a three- or four-day weekend. So me and my buddy drove back, got a bunch of stuff from different people's houses and tried to bring it back in a car with us. Everything still wasn't open yet. When we got back in the city, I was shocked at how barren everything still was.

It was unbelievable. We were handing food out in different areas. Handing out toiletries, stuff so people could wash their clothes. It was amazing how many people were still living in cars, how much devastation there still was and how desolate the city was.

Announcer Romig: Mom and Dad were in Lakeview, as were most of my family. All of them had water in excess of 10 feet. That water stewed for a couple of weeks. Everything just baked in that putrid water. Mom and Dad lost wedding pictures, baby pictures, books, clothes, souvenirs. Mom said it was just "stuff." That's how she was able to cope with it.

Dad said if there was one common denominator to make things OK, it's that the Saints were going to play that season. That was the way to keep things normal. The people of the Gulf Coast region had the Saints, at least, to hold on to. Every game was played for the people back home. I know that sounds trite, but we rallied around the flag.

Just days after the final evacuation of the Superdome, Thornton returned to survey the damage.

BILL HABER/Associated Press

Superdome manager Thornton: I walked through the building with a respirator. There were flies everywhere. The doors were all open. The cleanup on the exterior had begun, but there were literally tons of trash and debris. The mold had already set in. You could smell it. Taste it.

Baton Rouge

The Saints, like many New Orleans residents, found themselves in Baton Rouge by mid-autumn. The state capital escaped the hurricane relatively unscathed. The Saints were 2-5 when they hosted the Dolphins at LSU's Tiger Stadium. It would not be much of a home-field advantage: Rumors that the Saints would move to San Antonio permanently angered fans, while the Dolphins were coached by beloved former LSU coach Nick Saban.

Saints fans did their best to resume their weekly routines.

BILL FEIG/Associated Press

Tailgate King Sparks: It was easy for us to transition to Tiger Stadium for games. We already had a spot. We knew where the supermarkets were. It was already routine for us.

Gametime Saint Silcio: We caught a game at Tiger Stadium when they played Miami, ironically with Nick Saban as the coach. I don't remember the score (the Saints lost 21-6); I just know we didn't do well. It was a unique experience. I was happy to see the Saints, but it was really odd.

There was a lot of anger toward [team owner] Tom Benson. I remember seeing Benson being patrolled by security, like I've never seen before. He looked scared for his life. There were a lot of angry people.

Former QB Hebert: Some fans, all of a sudden, had problems with their loyalty because they loved Saban. I remember fights breaking out because people were cheering for Saban.

Tailgate King Sparks: The Miami game was really ugly, and when Tom Benson came out, there were a bunch of fans throwing cups and everything.

But we needed to get some normalcy back to our lives. People would come out and hug me and say, "Man, the tailgate was the best part of the game."

Behind the scenes, Thornton and the NFL laid the groundwork for a new beginning. After meeting with FEMA, engineers and other experts, Thornton had already briefed Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco on a plan to renovate the Superdome.

BILL FEIG/Associated Press

Superdome manager Thornton: Paul [Tagliabue], Roger [Goodell] and [NFL Executive Vice President] Joe Browne came into Baton Rouge on the 29th. We attended the LSU-North Texas State football game on Saturday night before the Saints played the next day.

We had a breakfast meeting the next morning at the hotel. That's when I laid out to Paul, Roger and Joe what I laid out for the governor. That's when Paul said to me, "Well, it can't be the same old Saints, the same old dome. You have a chance to make it a better place. Now is your chance to do something different: Erase those images of the past."

One thing I learned from all of this is that out of disaster sometimes comes opportunity.

The Return

Except for some brief trips back into the city, most New Orleans residents were displaced by Katrina until the late autumn, if not longer. As winter approached, both the Saints—mopping up a 3-13 season in Baton Rouge—and their fans faced an uncertain future.

BILL HABER/Associated Press

Dr. Leathem: There's a section of the exhibit called "Coming Home" about what people faced when they returned home: things that were destroyed and what we call Katrina Culture—all the refrigerators on the curb in areas that weren't flooded, and people would write things on them. It became a significant visual reminder of Katrina for months.

Tailgate King Sparks: The whole city stunk like rotten garbage, because everybody's refrigerator went bad.

Soul Saint: It was real quiet. We went past areas you still couldn't go in. They were still finding bodies, months later. Some people were missing. Some people are missing today.

Former fullback Gajan: You were limited as to where you could go. You'd be driving down I-10 or Airline Highway or Earhart Expressway and there would be blockades up. I didn't actually get into downtown until January.

Former QB Hebert: When I went, it was kind of a ghost town. You didn't have to worry about getting a parking ticket.

Broadcaster Bellavia: We got back to New Orleans the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. You could still see about four feet of water at the bottom of the dome. There was water at the bottom of the dome 15 days before the commissioner came. They had to clean it up to make it look decent so he could get up there and say, "We have a chance to fix this."

Superdome manager Thornton: Tagliabue was in New Orleans [on Monday, December 19]. We toured the affected areas, the Ninth Ward, Lakeview. He wanted to see Saints training camp. He wanted to meet with business leaders. The last stop was the Superdome. … From the middle of what would be the 50-yard line, standing on a concrete floor, the building was stripped naked. There's no ceiling tile. There's no drywall. There's just studs.

The NFL asked Thornton's Superdome Management Group if they could prepare the Superdome for a September Saints game; the original, already ambitious renovation project aimed for the Sugar Bowl in January of 2006. Thornton's team devised a plan to make the stadium "football ready," with minimal luxuries, by the start of the NFL season. Just before New Year's Eve, Saints fans received some good news.

STEVE HELBER/Associated Press

A quote from Benson appearing in the Times-Picayune on December 30, 2005:

The Saints look forward to serving as a leader in the rebuilding and revitalization of our great community. The Saints are committed to continuing their role as a community leader, an economic engine and an integral part of the fabric of the city and the great Gulf Coast community.

Security guard Foster: I always knew that when they rebuilt that dome, everything around it was going to blossom. Get the football team back here; that will draw everybody back to New Orleans.

Dr. Leathem: I know that during the repairs of the Superdome, people said, "How can we do this with so many people not back in their homes?" The response from the state was: This is an important part of our economy. It's a symbol of our city. By the time the Superdome did open, it became an emotional moment. It became a symbol of recovery. A symbol of life getting back to normal. Everyone paid attention to that moment. And for a lot of people, it was erasing those images of human misery. Now, for some people, that memory will never go away. They'll never want to enter the Superdome again. But for other people, it was a restorative moment.

Superdome manager Thornton: What I saw happen was remarkable. Over the next several months, the pace of the work actually accelerated. We accomplished way more than what we ever thought possible. All of the concession stands were finished. All of the seats were replaced. The press box was completed. All of the elevators and escalators, all of the restrooms.

The roof is 9.6 acres—440,000 square feet. They finished 36 days ahead of schedule. When does that ever happen? I have one explanation for that: We were all committed behind one common purpose, and that was to play a football game on September 25, 2006. The league, the Saints, SMG, the state, all of the contractors—many of whose fathers had built the dome when they were kids—they were New Orleanians, with seven feet of water in their houses, [setting] all of that aside to make this happen.

Rebirth

U2 performing with Green Day at the Saints home opener, 2006
U2 performing with Green Day at the Saints home opener, 2006Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The Superdome reopened on September 25, 2006, just over a year after it provided temporary, inadequate shelter to 30,000 evacuees for five days. The Saints' 23-3 victory over the Falcons has become one of the most important sporting events of this young century, a symbol of the power of sports to galvanize and heal a community that was still (and is still) dealing with the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

Everyone who spoke of Katrina and its aftermath remembers the details of that game: Steve Gleason's blocked punt, the U2-Green Day concert, the noise echoing through the newly renovated (though not 100 percent finished) Superdome.

Former QB Hebert: It was so crowded we couldn't even get from the pregame show to the opening kickoff in the press box. There was U2, Green Day, a giant jazz fest. There were just masses of people everywhere who weren't even going to the game.

Security guard Foster: I wish you could see the joy on people's faces. Think about it: All that pain and what everybody went through during Katrina, that's what they needed in their life then. That joy. The happiness. To be overwhelmed with that joy. That was something to see.

Saints fans outside the Superdome for the 2006 home opener
Saints fans outside the Superdome for the 2006 home openerCourtesy the Louisiana State Museum

Gametime Saint Silcio: We hadn't seen each other since the Ravens game of course. Just seeing one another, everybody was tearing up. It was just a very emotional moment, talking to one another, asking each other, "How you doing?" "Where are you living?" "Where have you been staying?" So many had lost houses. Some had moved in with extended families. Some had their parents move in together. Everybody was talking about their story.

Soul Saint: There were so many people, it was like the city had never evacuated. I never saw it that crowded.

We shed tears for that Atlanta game.

Former QB Hebert: It caused grown people to cry and kiss each other.

Former fullback Gajan: You were hugging the person next to you, no matter who it was.

Tailgate King Sparks: At the end, I looked at my buddy, and he looked at me, with tears rolling down our faces, and he said, "This is it. This is what it feels like to have a great team." It was goosebumps all over.

Epilogue

The Saints finished 10-6 in 2006 and reached the NFC Championship Game. After a victory in Dallas, Hebert hosted an extended postgame show into the wee hours of the morning, fielding calls from displaced Saints fans all over the country.

Former QB Hebert: People are calling us from Virginia, Missouri, everywhere. I said, "There's a Who Dat Nation." That's the birth of where that all started.

Dr. Leathem: Bobby took that old Saints cheer and came up with Who Dat Nation. It was a way to embrace those Saints fans who were in exile.

Former QB Hebert: It was a matter of people being displaced and scattered. They don't forget about the Saints. I guess it's like any blue-collar city. The Saints are the common man's team. There's nothing prima donna about them. Wherever fans are, they have roots in Louisiana, and they'll tell their kids, "Your first team has to be the Saints." It doesn't matter where you are; this is where your roots are.

Announcer Romig: The Saints have been a common denominator for us across all racial lines, all income levels, all neighborhoods, you name it.

Dr. Leathem: Louisianans are famously attached to their homeland. In the 2000 census, Louisiana had the highest percentage of people living in-state who were born in the state of any state. Many people feel an attachment to home, but here it is not just home. It's generations of family. New Orleans was full of people who lived in the same neighborhoods as family members or lived next door to family members. There are many things that bind people together here, the Saints being one of them.

There are people here who don't really follow the Saints. But at the same time, it is a widespread thing that people talk about and identify with. It was woven into our recovery. The Saints' starting on their road to the Super Bowl. It was something for people to rally around.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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