Finally, a long-deserved celebration for New Orleans

Updated: September 26, 2006, 2:23 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- Martha Brown stood looking at the field in the Louisiana Superdome, tears streaming down her face, her sister's arm around her shoulders.

Like so many others in the newly renovated stadium Monday night, Brown was busy storing new memories to replace the ones she'd carried around since Hurricane Katrina tore through the city, turning the Superdome into a symbol of misery and suffering.

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesSaints running back Reggie Bush greets fans outside the Superdome prior to Monday night's game against the Falcons.
"My mother and father, my sister, her husband, my nieces and nephews were all brought here after their house flooded," Brown said. "I was in Atlanta seeing it on television. I thought they should tear this place down, but I'm so glad they didn't."

Brown's family, now settled in Dallas, couldn't make the opening of the Superdome, so Brown, a bank clerk, and her sister came for them.

"They're watching on television," she said as the New Orleans Saints wrapped up a 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. "Tonight wipes out a lot of hurt."

The more than 68,000 other people in the Superdome shared in the sentiment, and broke into celebration as the game ended. Vehicles blasted their horns in jubilation outside the stadium, while Saints owner Tom Benson danced on the stadium's sidelines, capping a day of revelry like few others seen since Katrina flooded the city more than a year ago.

Earlier Monday, rock bands blasted and tailgate parties served up barbecue and brew as thousands of people poured into the streets, hoping to forget about Katrina during a Mardi Gras-like celebration of the Saints' first home game since the storm.

Crowds swamped in a human sea, creating a huge traffic jam for the team's emotional return and the reopening of the stadium, which underwent $185 million in repairs to erase damage done during and after Katrina.

"This is exactly what the city needs," said 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 a Super Bowl buildup. The Goo Goo Dolls played to the crowd outside the dome. Green Day and U2 performed inside for the crowd.

Inside the noise was deafening, as fans chanted and cheered, and waved white handkerchiefs, second-line fashion. Most stayed long after the final seconds ticked off the clock, wanting to prolong their enjoyment. But the crowd was good-natured and orderly, Superdome spokesman Bill Curl.

"We needed this, said Lionel Hotard, 53, who said he was still running from Katrina this time last year. "We needed something to cheer about and this is it. This puts life back in the city and boy do we need it."

Even with its gleaming new cover, the Superdome remained 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.

The Saints had 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.

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 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.

"This is the best holiday since Mardi Gras," said Tanyha Brown.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press