Saints' successes are reuniting area ravaged by Katrina


Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

NEW ORLEANS — Standing in his storm-ravaged neighborhood, Jewels Gettridge clutched the gold football medallion on his necklace and explained its significance.

The 53-year-old Ninth Ward resident didn't follow football before Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of the area, which trapped him for five days before he was rescued.

But now the resurgent New Orleans Saints have given him and the handful of residents who returned to the desolate and still devastated neighborhood something to rally around. They gather each Sunday to watch the team play, while eating a feast of turkey necks, pigs feet and Irish potatoes.

"It gives us life around here," he said.

The Superdome symbolized the horrors of Katrina, with residents trapped inside the damaged structure for days before being evacuated. More than 16 months later, the stadium is a symbol of the city's rebirth.

The structure has gone through a $185 million renovation, allowing the Saints to return for what has been one of the best seasons in their history. And after a one-year absence, the Sugar Bowl returns tonight and features local favorite Louisiana State against Notre Dame.

"All the stars and planets must be aligned just right," said Darwin Pittman, 55, an LSU fan who lives outside Baton Rouge.

Pittman drove his RV into town Tuesday for the game. He stood in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn near the Superdome, waiting for the emergency workers staying there to leave so he could take their spots.

The National Guard's Hummers parked nearby show that the hotel is home to many involved in the recovery effort.

Many hotels are open for business and eager for customers, said Darius Gray, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. Gray manages the Holiday Inn in the French Quarter, which he said was expecting 90 percent occupancy for the game.

Other hotels are projecting lower numbers, he said, reflecting the fact that some LSU fans live nearby and after the game are driving home. But he said most people are just grateful the game has returned and will give the city positive national exposure.

"People can see we've come a long way (although) we have a long way to go," he said.

While many of the city's homes were devastated, the French Quarter was relatively unscathed by the storm and has maintained its party atmosphere. Civic leaders say tourists can help recovery efforts by pumping money into the local economy.

"The best thing people can do is visit and spend money and have a good time," said Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Unlike the neighborhoods around the city, the Superdome shows few signs of the hits it took. The storm shredded 70 percent of the roof and allowed water to infiltrate, destroying carpeting and electrical equipment.

Because of the destruction and the evacuees who died there, there was initially talk of razing the stadium. But the NFL's commitment to returning the Saints and an infusion of federal dollars prevented that from happening, said Doug Thornton, regional vice president of the management firm that operates the Superdome.

"We were determined not to have Katrina become the final chapter in the Superdome's colorful history," he said

The Superdome has hosted six Super Bowls, four NCAA basketball Final Fours, a visit by Pope John Paul and concerts including the Rolling Stones. Renovations were completed in time for the first Saints game this season, and every game has sold out.

The Saints' success on the field means a playoff game will be hosted there. The stadium was the site of the University of Florida's 1996 football national championship and next year will host the BCS National Championship game.

Repairs continue on luxury boxes and were just completed on offices, allowing Thornton to start working there again for the first time since the storm. For five days after Katrina, he lived in his office to help keep the stadium functioning while it was used as a shelter.

"I know how emotional it can be and how tough it can be to walk back in and face it for the first time," he said.

He said he's often questioned about how the Superdome could be fixed while many homes still lay in ruins. The dome used federal funds specifically slated for such facilities to pay for repairs, he said, creating jobs that allow people to pay for their home repairs.

Back in the Ninth Ward, husks of battered homes that still remain empty today dominate Gettridge's neighborhood. But he brushed off questions about how the Superdome could be reopened while the rest of the city struggles. "That's politics, man," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached on the road by e-mail at nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com or cell phone at (352) 222-3953.

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