Sunday, January 27, 2013

Seven and a half years of rebuilding later, New Orleans welcomes world back for Super Bowl

 Outside the Louisana Superdome before the ESPN Monday Night Football game September 25, 2006 in New Orleans.Atlanta Falcons vs New Orleans Saints - September 25, 2006SuperdomeNew Orleans , Louisiana United StatesSeptember 25, 2006Photo by Al Messerschmidt/WireImage.comTo license this image (10567700), contact WireImage:+1 212-686-8900 (tel)+1 212-686-8901 (fax) (e-mail) (web site)

NEW ORLEANS — The streets that will be packed with partiers this week were once filled with water. The building that will be home to the biggest sporting event on the planet next Sunday was once filled with frightened, homeless souls. The building itself was nearly destroyed.

It was all about survival back then, in the days, weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore and nearly washed New Orleans away. People were working to salvage what they could of a battered city that they feared would never be the same.

“We were knocked to our knees and under 15 feet of water for three weeks,” recalls Jay Cicero, the president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. “And if you had asked me back then, the week after the storm, whether or not the Superdome was going to be able to be renovated, whether or not the Saints would be able to return to New Orleans the very next season, whether or not we’d have that glorious reopening of the Superdome that next September, whether we would have attracted the Super Bowl for 2013, had a Final Four six months before that, I would’ve said, ‘There’s absolutely no way.’ ”

Yet here the city of New Orleans is, seven and a half years and more than a billion dollars of rebuilding later, ready to welcome the world back for Super Bowl XLVII. Once a regular home to the NFL’s biggest game, the Big Easy hasn’t played host to the game since February 2002 — simply because it couldn’t.

Now, Cicero says, the Super Bowl’s return “is an opportunity for New Orleans to show the rest of the world how far we’ve come in the past 7½ years.”

“We’re ready,” adds Mary Matalin, the famous political strategist who, along with her husband James Carville, are the co-chairs of the host committee.

“We all liken it to having a wedding or a big party at your house where everything we needed to get done, we got done. We exceeded our own expectations.”

The Crescent City is smaller than it used to be, down to about 375,000 folks from the approximately 500,000 who called it home before Katrina pushed Lake Pontchartrain over and through the levees that were supposed to protect the city. There are still vacant homes, especially in the impoverished lower Ninth Ward, and countless people who were forced to leave town and have never returned.

But the rebuilding job has been remarkable nonetheless. There has been nearly $1.2 billion in improvements to New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The airport underwent a $350 million renovation. A new street car line that cost $45 million is scheduled to open on Monday. Visitors to the French Quarter will notice eight rebuilt streets and sidewalks that cost $11 million.

Carville says the city, which once had 800 restaurants, now has more than 1,300. Mark Romig, the media chairman of the host committee, says 4,000 new hotel rooms have been built in the city and 20,000 more in the surrounding areas, all in preparation for New Orleans’ return to the international stage.

Carville says he has sensed a building of civic pride in his native city. He believes this is the moment — an admittedly nervous moment — that his hometown has been working toward since the moment Katrina rocked the gulf.

“If I didn’t tell you that sometimes I wake up at night saying, ‘You know, if this thing goes well this can really help people put a lot of things behind them …’ yes, that thought has crossed my mind,” Carville says. “But I can’t allow myself to think like that. I’m a little bit like these teams, you know? You can’t think of what it’s like to win. You’ve just got to prepare and hope that you win.”

His city has won before, like on Sept. 25, 2006 when the Superdome reopened with $185 million in improvements, just 13 months after Katrina, and the hometown Saints — who very nearly bolted for San Antonio — filled everyone’s hearts with an emotional, 23-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons. That, Carville says, “was one of the most significant regular-season games in any sports, anywhere. That marked a hallmark in the recovery of New Orleans from events that took place barely a year before that.”

The world was watching that day, but that was nothing compared to the attention and the scrutiny New Orleans is about to get from the rest of the planet. There will be more than 5,000 members of the media arriving in the next few days. The host committee estimates 150,000 people will visit the city during the week, spending more than $400 million.

Then on Sunday, more than 110 million people will watch the Baltimore Ravens battle the San Francisco 49ers for the silver Lombardi trophy inside a building that was once a nightmarish symbol of one of the greatest natural disasters the United States has ever seen. The Superdome was a shelter after Katrina, a place where the residents of New Orleans went for food, medical attention, or just to try and get some sleep. A place of refuge, that turned into a nightmare for many.

Now, it is about to be the world’s biggest stage.

“I think that this Super Bowl, at least to us, represents a lot,” Carville says. “We feel like the city is ready for it. The things that were promised to be on time have been delivered on time. We’re excited about hosting this football game.

“If things go the way that we hope, my hope is that it can help bring some real closure here and that the city can show what it can do.”

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