Brian Allee-Walsh

New Orleans, Saints owe former Gov. Kathleen Blanco a huge thanks for Katrina efforts

Video: Hurricane Katrina -- Surviving The Point

Point Cadet is a peninsula in East Biloxi. Back Bay wraps around its north side, flowing into the Mississippi Sound to the south and the Gulf beyond. During Hurricane Katrina it received extremely high water that destroyed homes and lives. Members
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Point Cadet is a peninsula in East Biloxi. Back Bay wraps around its north side, flowing into the Mississippi Sound to the south and the Gulf beyond. During Hurricane Katrina it received extremely high water that destroyed homes and lives. Members

On Oct. 11, 2005, nearly 15 years ago, as much of her state lay in ruin from Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco held the fate of the New Orleans Saints and the city of New Orleans in her legislative hands.

Blanco’s approval was needed immediately to begin the arduous and costly undertaking of breathing life back into the Louisiana Superdome and returning the Saints to their rightful home.

With her gubernatorial support, $200 million in state funds could be fast tracked to New Orleans to begin the necessary repairs to the Superdome.

Without it, well, there’s no telling what the New Orleans business and sports landscape might look like today explained SMG Executive Vice-President of Stadiums & Arenas Doug Thornton, who also oversees the Superdome.

On Wednesday, Blanco was named the 2019 recipient of the Joe Gemelli “Fleur de Lis’‘ award, which annually recognizes people who make significant contributions to the Saints. At the same press conference, former Saints running back Reggie Bush and wide receiver Marques Colston were introduced as the newest members of the Saints Hall of Fame

“I remember Gov. Blanco’s own staff saying we would be criticized for this,’‘ Thornton said Thursday when reached on business in Hong Kong. “The concern was that people would not understand how we could put a football stadium on a fast track when we still had roads and bridges and hospitals that were in need of major repairs.

“But she did not hesitate. She said yes; we will rebuild the Superdome. That was a critical moment in time. If she had said let’s examine this, let’s wait and see, the reopening of the Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006, would never have happened. We didn’t have a minute, a day, a week to spare. It was a race to the finish.’‘

Thornton said Blanco was instrumental in having the Saints play four home games at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge while maintaining their base of operations and playing three home games in San Antonio during the 2005 season. On Halloween eve, she hosted New Orleans business leaders at the governor’s mansion with Saints owner Tom Benson the guest of honor. And, in early December, she signed an executive order that gave Thornton and others full authority to oversee the rebuild of the Superdome.

All are additional examples of her unwavering support for the city of New Orleans, its citizenry, the Saints and the state of Louisiana.

“That emergency declaration of powers by the governor allowed us to make quick decisions on the ground without going through a lot of bureaucratic red tape,’‘ said Thornton, the 2016 recipient of the “Fleur de Lis’‘ award, “That gave us the freedom to design it and construct it without dealing with delays.’‘

On the night of Sept. 25, 2006, with a national TV audience looking on in wonder, amazement and curiosity, the doors to the Superdome re-opened as the Saints played host to the Atlanta Falcons. Tears fell, emotions ran the gamut and the Saints exited with a stirring 23-3 victory that was punctuated by Steve Gleason’s punt block and Curtis DeLoatch’s ensuing fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.

“All of the decisions that were made in the fall of 2005, between October and early December, were made at a time when literally 40,000 people were living in New Orleans,’‘ Thornton said. “There were serious doubts about whether there would be long term recovery. No one knew,

“If Kathleen Blanco had hesitated on Oct. 11, and we had waited a month or two or longer, we wouldn’t have had the Saints season in New Orleans in 2006. The Saints could have possibly been playing in San Antonio for two years. Who knows whether they would have come back at that point. Once you plant a flag there and the momentum changes, the NFL and Mr. Benson could have said ‘no way.’’’

Thornton paused.

“’Governor Blanco never gets enough credit for what she did during that period,’‘ he said. “She was a staunch defender of New Orleans and Louisiana when it came to keeping the Saints. She made no bones about it with NFL owners, (then-NFL commissioner) Paul Tagliabue and Mr. Benson.

“We owe Governor Blanco a lot.’‘

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.
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