NEW ORLEANS – Drew Brees hopes the world watches what happens in and around the Superdome on Monday night.
As the Saints host the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans will mark the 10-year anniversary of the reopening of the hulking, 73,000-seat stadium on Sept. 25, 2006, following its unprecedented 10-month restoration from extensive damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Brees figures coverage of the game will resonate with people he met this summer from flood-ravaged areas of West Virginia, when the Saints held training camp there – or with Louisiana residents whose communities around Baton Rouge were inundated last month.
“So many of those people, right when it happens to you, just can’t fathom ever being able to come back from that,” Brees said. “New Orleans is a great example and symbol of how it can come back when you have this community that bands together and continues to press on.”
The handful of current Saints who were on the team in 2006 – Brees, right guard Jahri Evans, right tackle Zach Strief and safety Roman Harper – don’t anticipate an atmosphere as electric and cathartic as a decade ago. Several said it would be impossible to contrive the raw, communal emotion that poured forth during a game played just 13 months after Katrina had transformed a community renowned for its joie de vivre into a sea of devastation.
And nothing could replicate the thunderous, drink-spilling frenzy that erupted when then-special teams standout Steve Gleason blocked a punt that Curtis Deloatch recovered for a Saints touchdown. That play – widely regarded as the most memorable in franchise history – is immortalized in a statue just outside the dome.
Still, they expect this Monday night to be special in its own way.
“As you begin to highlight the specific elements around New Orleans that have come back even stronger than they were prior to the storm, that’s a great story to tell,” Brees said. “It’s a very uplifting story.”
The Superdome, one of America’s most famous sporting arenas long before Katrina, became a poignant symbol of destruction, suffering and loss when Katrina hit. Its expansive white roof was torn up, exposing evacuees inside to falling debris and water pouring in – all while rising water in surrounding streets turned the stadium’s elevated public plaza into an island of desperation.
It took nearly four days to evacuate more than 30,000 people who took refuge at the stadium. They spent three-plus days in increasingly squalid, dank conditions after plumbing and power systems failed. The air was hot, heavy and stifling, overpowering the senses with the stench of perspiration, backed-up sewage, and festering mildew and mold.
Doug Thornton, a New Orleans-based executive for SMG, which manages the Superdome, was in the stadium until those stranded were evacuated by bus or helicopter.
Thornton recalled feeling “helpless and so sorrowful” as he left the dome and boarded a helicopter, which flew over his own devastated neighborhood near the breached 17th Street Canal.
“Then I looked back over my shoulder and saw the dome in the background and could see the water glistening for miles,” Thornton said. “I saw that roof ripped apart and I knew what I’d left behind and I couldn’t imagine that we could ever recover.”
Thornton figured the dome might be a demolition candidate. Architects later advised him it could be saved. Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue informed Thornton that the league wanted the stadium restored enough for football by the 2006 season, which would require crews working long hours, six to seven days a week.
The Saints played their home preseason games in Jackson, Mississippi, and Shreveport, Louisiana. They opened the 2006 regular season with two road games, winning both, further fueling excitement about the dome’s reopening.
Players already had gotten a sense of how unique their home opener would be two nights before the game, when coach Sean Payton brought players to the dome for a walk-through. Payton gathered players near midfield to watch a short video which featured residents rebuilding amid devastated streetscapes, welcoming the Saints home and thanking them for being back.
“Forget sports for a while. There’s a period of time where just life as New Orleanians knew it, or Louisiana residents knew it – how would that be affected?” Payton recalled this week. “So you have this event that coincides with the opening of an area that was used to shelter people. There were a ton of things that were unreal about it.”
Evans said the Saints were moved by the video and the hardship they’d witnessed around town.
“We wanted to play hard. We wanted to play tough,” Evans said. “We wanted to give the fans something to be proud of.”
Rock bands U2 and Green Day, eager to celebrate the rebirth of a city with a renowned musical history, joined to sing “The Saints Are Coming “ in a Super Bowl-like production before the game.
Thornton, who’d noticed some fans crying as they entered the dome, said he wept, too, when the music began. When the house lights went down, the lighting was similar to when the building was on emergency power during the storm. Thornton noticed he was standing near the same section he and his staff had scurried people out of when the roof tore open above it during Katrina.
“I saw these people standing and cheering,” Thornton recalled, “and all could visualize were people huddled under blankets shielding themselves from the rain.”
Strief was not in uniform that night, but was on the sideline.
“Usually in a game like that, the attention and focus and importance in that building is on the field – and it wasn’t that night,” Strief said. “The people in there that night were a bigger deal.”
Brees and Strief said they remember the sound of the blocked punt – the ball squarely hitting Gleason’s hand. Brees compared it to a “shotgun blast,” followed the crowd roaring so loud, Strief said, that “you could feel physically the energy and the noise.”
Gleason, who retired in 2008, was diagnosed several years later with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which causes paralysis. Now wheelchair-bound, he is arguably known more globally for his activism on behalf of those stricken with neuro-muscular diseases than he was for football.
Yet his punt block that cemented his place in New Orleans lore. He was popular before Katrina because of how he embraced New Orleans. He was dating a local woman who he would ultimately marry. And as he sat at his locker after the game, he said the play gave him “infinite joy.”
“Sometimes, people think the future of New Orleans is in doubt, and we’re just here to help people create a bright future,” Gleason said that night. “I’ve got a lot of connections here. I’ve got people here that I know and love, and that was our goal, is to come out, man, and provide joy for those people – and that’s exactly what we did.
“It can’t get any better than that,” Gleason continued, “and I’m just real grateful that I could be a part of it.”