We are speeding toward the fifth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast that changed the lives of so many people and institutions. In some respects, it seems like five days ago, and in others, like a lifetime ago.
I will write about my personal recollections of the days leading up to the storm on Monday as a member of the Saints’ front office.
The Saints’ beat writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2005, and again today, Jeff Duncan, wrote a column about how that aftermath of the storm may have saved the franchise for one of America’s great cities.
It’s hard to believe that premise on its face, but if the nation learned anything about New Orleans in the months and years after Katrina, it was that the people of New Orleans clung to everything that made it truly home, from the wonderful food and music celebrated in popular culture, Mardi Gras and a football team known more for being lovable losers over its history.
Duncan writes that the Saints franchise in 2005 was not on solid ground, on or off the field.
“On the field, the Saints were mired in mediocrity. They’d missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons and were led by the consistently inconsistent Aaron Brooks. They were the worst kind of average: just competitive enough to maintain hope and fend off wholesale changes, but not quite good enough to get over the hump and make the playoffs. From 2001 to 2004, they finished 7-9, 9-7, 8-8 and 8-8.
“Off the field, things were even worse. Owner Tom Benson’s constant haggling with state officials for a new stadium and incessant flirtation with rival cities had worn thin with fans. He and the other two faces of the franchise — Brooks and then-Coach Jim Haslett — had effectively polarized the fan base.”
Duncan then goes on to recount the history of the club’s temporary move to San Antonio for the 2005 season, and the work of the NFL and the state to return the franchise into a rebuilt Louisiana Superdome for 2006 with not much more than a one-year commitment.
Ultimately, the real heroes in Duncan’s estimation are the Saints fans who realized how close they came to losing their beloved team.
“They showed faith when there was none. They believed when there was no reason to believe. And they made the first move in this post-Katrina courtship.”
The love affair was rekindled the night the Superdome re-opened in front of a raucous crowd against the Atlanta Falcons in 2006, and the relationship was sealed for good when head coach Sean Payton lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in celebration of the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV title.
The future of the franchise in New Orleans is secure, and the league showed its faith in that long-term commitment by awarding Super Bowl XLVII to the Superdome in 2013. By next season, the Superdome will have been essentially rebuilt into a truly modern NFL facility.
In that way, the Superdome will continue to bear witness to some of the greatest sporting moments in the world while standing whole again after some of the darkest days in New Orleans history.