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Super Bowl caps long comeback for New Orleans

SUPER CITY
Superdome suffered massive damage from Katrina in 2005.
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Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner is a general assignment writer for FOXSports.com. Originally from Orlando, Fla., he previously covered the Orlando Magic for FOX Sports Florida and has also covered the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and MLB playoffs. Follow him on Twitter.

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Some of the most memorable, and horrifying, images from Hurricane Katrina came from the Superdome, where thousands of New Orleanians took shelter on Aug. 29, 2005, seeking refuge in one of the few dry, safe places left in a city submerged.

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It’s still harrowing to see the photos to this day, more than seven years after the storm, which left more than 1,800 dead: the outer layer ripped off the dome’s roof; the countless residents wandering along highways, waiting in lines to get in, many clutching whatever they could grab before their homes became one of 200,000 swallowed by floodwaters throughout the city; the cots spread across the building’s floor, leaving the stadium looking more like a wartime triage unit than a place where the hometown Saints had just played a preseason football game three days earlier.

In time, the Superdome itself would prove neither as safe nor as dry as many had hoped, as unsanitary, dangerous conditions and flooding abetted by holes in the stadium’s roof forced people to evacuate again, to Houston. And in the days and weeks that followed Katrina — before Hurricane Rita’s landfall only added to the city’s plight in mid-September — questions arose regarding the future of the city and, by extension, the then-30-year-old Superdome:

What should be done with this landmark? Should it be torn down? Would the Saints, its only professional tenant, even stay in town to make the necessary renovations worthwhile? Should this even be considered a priority, given the sheer wreckage across nearly every square mile of this town?

Of course, amid all of the concern over the future of the city and the building itself, the 2013 Super Bowl was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, which makes it all the more remarkable that New Orleans is hosting Super Bowl XLVII between the 49ers and the Ravens next Sunday, in what some view as the latest — and perhaps ultimate — affirmation that Katrina is finally a distant memory.

“We were knocked to our knees and under 15 feet of water for three weeks,” Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans sports foundation, said Thursday as he recalled the immediate aftermath of the killer storm.

“If you had asked me back then, a week after the storm, whether or not the Superdome was going to be renovated, whether the Saints would be able to return to New Orleans the very next season, whether we’d have that glorious reopening of the Superdome that September, that the Saints would be selling out season tickets every year since, which they never did before, whether we would have gone to an NFC Championship Game within a couple years, then won the Super Bowl, and attracted the Super Bowl in 2013 and had a men’s Final Four six months prior to that, I would have said there’s absolutely no way.”

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But all of that happened, banding together a city in the process. There’s even a strong case to be made that New Orleans, as it prepares for an estimated 150,000 visitors for the city’s 10th Super Bowl — an event made possible by $1 billion in improvements around the city, from the Superdome, to the airport, to the convention center, to the new streetcar line — is in better shape than it was the last time the game came to town, in 2002.

“Hosting the Super Bowl means everything to us,” said Kelly Schulz, VP of communications and public relations at New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There is no bigger, more high-profile event that an American city can host, really. So absolutely, it does send a message that New Orleans is not only back, but it’s better than it’s ever been.”

Added New Orleans Super Bowl Host Committee co-chairman James Carville: “My hope is it can help bring some real closure here, and that the city can show what it can do."

New Orleans’ revitalization over the last seven-plus years not only is a testament the city’s residents — many of whom never considered abandoning their city — but also to the proprietors and entrepreneurs who embody the area’s distinct culture and stuck around to make sure it emerged in the shape that it has.

People such as Ti Martin, who spent her 45th birthday watching helplessly from afar as Katrina wreaked havoc on the only city she’d ever loved.

A spunky redhead with an undeniable magnetism to match her charming accent, Martin is a well-known and well-regarded restaurateur in New Orleans. Her Commander’s Palace in the Garden District has long been considered one of the city’s top spots to dine. But after Katrina and Rita got the best of the blue and white Victorian building that houses the 133-year-old establishment, there were tough calls to make about when and where to start the rebuilding process — but no question that Commander’s would eventually be back up and running.

“For a lot of people, they live where they live, and they’re happy about where they live, and it’s nice and whatnot, but they could just as easily move or whatever,” Martin said. “The city of New Orleans is not just where you live, it’s like a member of your family.”

After 13 months and $6.5 million in renovations, Commander’s Palace reopened on Oct. 1, 2006. But early on, the thrill of the accomplishment was muted by the struggles still affecting the city and its people.

“Every night, somebody would come in and they’d say, ‘It’s our last night in New Orleans and we decided to come here before we move,’ and it was so depressing,” said Martin, who admits she had a difficult time sympathizing with those who decided to leave.

“Well, now, it seems like every night I’m meeting somebody who just moved to town or who’s moving back, and the type of people that we’re repopulating this city with — it’s just unbelievable.”

After five tough years, business at Commander’s finally is back to where it was pre-Katrina — much like all over New Orleans, where tourism numbers plummeted in the immediate aftermath of the storm, from a record 10.1 million visitors in 2004 to 3.7 million in 2006 before climbing back to pre-storm levels in recent years.

But such a turnaround never was a sure thing given the stigma that had been placed on the city.

“Katrina put us in a situation where the entire world saw images of New Orleans in utter devastation, and even though our French Quarter was dry and most of the tourism areas of the city did not sustain the significant damage like some of the outlying neighborhoods, the brand damage was enormous,” Schulz said. “You really can’t underestimate the amount of damage that was done to the city’s reputation.”

Added Martin: “We had a little touch of an inferiority complex before, and now we’ve gone from that to having a little bit of a swagger, and it feels damn good. It’s been a hell of a lot of hard work, but there’s so much going on, and it’s starting to pay off. It’s beautiful.”

The restaurant industry has been booming all over New Orleans, a gastronomer’s paradise to begin with, with more than 1,300 restaurants operating in the city — 500 more than there were before Katrina. One of those new venues finding early success in the market belongs to Sean McCusker, who opened Sylvain restaurant in a 214-year-old building in the French Quarter in 2010 after spending 16 years in the publishing industry in New York.

Sylvain, so named for a one-act comic opera performed in New Orleans in the late 1700s, is an upscale restaurant in an area of New Orleans better known for its drinking in the streets, and has been met with overwhelming approval from visitors both local and otherwise.

“This is probably the most nuanced city in the country, if not the world,” McCusker said. “You have to earn it here, especially if you’re in the food and beverage business.

“We focused on locals first, and we didn’t even put a sign out on our place for a good six to nine months. We just kind of let people in the neighborhood find it. … It probably hurt us financially in the short term. But it did definitely pay off in the long term, because the people who came to us at the beginning are still coming.”

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Success during New Orleans’ renaissance hasn’t just been limited to the food and beverage industry, either, as Lauren Thom could attest. A New Orleans native, Thom went to college in Baton Rouge, where she had to house her sister and brother in-law after Katrina forced them to evacuate New Orleans on their wedding night.

After Katrina, Thom moved back to her hometown, and in 2009, she used her $2,000 tax refund to open Fleurty Girl, a retail shop she operated out of her own home. The new business forced her and her three kids — a 6-year-old and 3-year-old twins, at the time — to share a room.

Thom gave herself a six-month window for the business to succeed or fail, but the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl run and the publicity gained from a public battle with the NFL over the use of the “Who Dat” slogan led to almost instant success. Within six months, she had a second store, a number that is now up to four, with a fifth set to open Friday.

“Everybody told me I was crazy — everyone,” Thom said of opening a store in post-Katrina New Orleans. “My boss was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this; this is so silly.’ I was threatened with custody of my kids; my ex was threatening to take me back to court because I wanted to do this. But I just kept going, I just kept moving forward with it.”

There’s no misconception, of course, that football saved New Orleans, or that a Super Bowl can erase the memory of a city once nearly eradicated by Hurricane Katrina.

But that hulking dome, once the symbol for post-Katrina strife, will be standing tall on Sunday, shining brightly above a city left in shambles just seven years ago.

And for the people who lived through the storm and its aftermath — the people who made it their priority to rebuild the city they love — it’ll represent an enormous sense of pride in what they’ve accomplished.

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“I was driving on the interstate trying to look at everything from the perspective of a tourist — looking at all the Super Bowl billboards that are up in the city, and then approaching the dome, and it recently got repainted, and it’s got these lights, and it looks amazing,” Thom said.

“They change them every night and it’s just so spectacular, and I started to tear up, because I’m just so proud of us. I’m proud of this city and all that we’ve been through. I don’t think people understand what New Orleans has survived. This is a big deal.”

Added Martin: “Every now and then when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone and you’re just working, working, working, you’ve got to stop and say, ‘Look what we did.’ And this is going to be another one of those moments.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com

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