When the Saints welcome the Atlanta Falcons to New Orleans this Monday, they’ll do so on the day after the 10th anniversary of the first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.
The recovery from Hurricane Katrina has been an ongoing process for the city of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region. The spirit of New Orleans, however, returned to the city on a Monday night in September 2006, when the Saints took the field in the Superdome for the first time after the storm.
Just months before, the future of the Superdome was in doubt. The dome, like the city and the region around it, had to be remade. That night, a 23-3 win over the Falcons on Monday Night Football represented the resilience of New Orleans.
“I think it symbolized not only maybe the resurgence of our football team, but the resurgence of the city and the recovery and the rebirth,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Brees was new to New Orleans and the Saints, as was head coach Sean Payton. For Payton, the game carried a responsibility to bear the hopes of an entire city while also preparing his team to win.
“I think the significance — certainly the symbolism of a game, a stadium opening that had just within a year housed so many people that were homeless during that storm,” Payton said.
“But I also think what gets lost in it — at the time, both teams were 2-0. Both teams had started off with a couple of good wins. And so for me, the head coach, the concern was just you’re dealing with the nerves and the significance of the game, and then trying to really get guys ready to play.”
Ten years later, Brees is nearing the end of his Saints career at age 37, and Payton is trying to rally his team to be competitive in the NFC South despite starting off 0-2. This game against the Falcons matters, but it doesn’t carry the significance it did 10 years ago. Meanwhile, New Orleans continues the slow, arduous process of rebuilding.
Shelter from the storm
In August 2005, the devastation from Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, and when the levees failed and the waters rose in New Orleans, the city was irreparably changed. Thousands of New Orleans residents were driven from their homes, but so many had nowhere to go.
The Superdome had long served as a refuge for New Orleanians with serious medical conditions who couldn’t be easily evacuated during major storms, and the management was prepared for about 850 people during Katrina.
Then-mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order, the first in New Orleans’ history, but about 25 percent of the 500,000 people living in the city didn’t have cars. They had no way to leave.
When Nagin’s office notified the Superdome staff that it would need to be a refuge for those who had not evacuated, there was no way the staff could have been prepared for the 30,000 people who would seek safe haven there.
The storm was 400 miles wide and carried with it sustained winds of 100 to 140 miles per hour. The Superdome sustained significant damage, losing part of its roof.
The power went out shortly after Katrina made landfall, and the backup generator only kept the lights on. There was no air conditioning. The temperature hovered in the 80s, with high humidity. The food on hand was rotting, toilets were overflowing, and all the sinks were broken. The plumbing was built to withstand use by several thousand people at a time for short intervals, not for constant use over a period of five days.
By the time the storm subsided, the levees had failed. The water was rising, and the city abandoned the Superdome and the citizens left behind in it. Eventually those who sought refuge in the Superdome were evacuated, and the city, and the entire Gulf Coast, began a process of reconstruction that continues to this day.
The Saints’ first game back in the Superdome didn’t erase those wounds, but it did help the city of New Orleans regain a little of what it lost to Katrina.
The Saints return to New Orleans
The damage to the Superdome was so substantial that it was uncertain whether it could ever be restored. There was speculation that the dome would be demolished, and Saints owner Tom Benson took his time deciding but eventually chose to renovate.
Like so many residents of the Gulf Coast, the Saints were displaced, without a home, throughout the 2005 season. They played their home games in LSU’s Tiger Stadium, the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and one at the Giants’ stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. New Orleans finished the season 3-13.
Before the 2006 season, the Saints hired Payton and brought in Brees. The team, like the city it represents, was trying to rebuild.
The Superdome wasn’t ready for the preseason, so the Saints stayed on the road for all four weeks. Sean Payton said that was part of the challenge of preparing for the season.
“The training camp was long,” Payton said. “It was six weeks, because the Superdome wasn’t ready, and so our preseason home games were in Shreveport and then the other was in Jackson (Mississippi).”
The Saints’ first two games were on the road, wins against the Cleveland Browns and the Green Bay Packers. They returned to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina had changed everything to face an NFC South rival on Monday Night Football, the NFL’s biggest regular season spotlight.
With quite a bit of roster turnover in the offseason, and no preseason games for new players to get acclimated to the Superdome, Payton said there were different challenges for the coaching staff in preparing for this game.
“We actually had a practice there, I think, on a Friday night or a Saturday night, just to get used to the lighting,” Payton said. “For half the team, it was our first game in the stadium, so the concerns about parking and traffic and maybe a lot of things that aren’t necessarily a normal concern, those were things that we wanted to make sure we were on top of.”
The atmosphere was unforgettable
The Saints were back, and the city was ready for them.
There was a pregame U2 concert, and Green Day joined them to perform “The Saints are Coming,” a song written for the occasion. President George W. Bush did the coin toss and was met with boos from the crowd inside the Superdome, a reaction to the federal government’s slow and inadequate response to the devastation of Katrina.
Falcons players knew instantly that this game was going to be an experience.
Matt Schaub was the backup to quarterback Michael Vick in 2006, and after a 10-year absence, he’s in a Falcons uniform again, this time as Matt Ryan’s No. 2. He’s one of two current Falcons players who was in the Superdome for that Monday night game.
“It was just an incredible atmosphere, from pregame all the way until the clock read zero,” Schaub said. “You could barely hear. You could barely communicate right next to your coach on the sideline. It was that loud. It was deafening.”
Jonathan Babineaux said they could feel the energy of the whole city of New Orleans backing the Saints that night.
“The atmosphere was like none other,” Babineaux said. “It felt like the whole city brought their energy into the building that night, and it was just something, as a player, I’d never felt before and I still remember it to this day.”
The game lived up to the hype
It all started with a blocked kick.
Ninety seconds into the game, Saints safety Steve Gleason blocked a Michael Koenen punt, and Curtis Deloatch recovered it in the end zone to get New Orleans on the board first. The Saints were rolling, and they didn’t stop.
“Emotions were high early in that game for both teams, and we were back and forth, not really doing much with the ball,” Schaub said. “And then when we were backed up, and they blocked that punt for a score, I mean, the roof almost came off of the stadium it was so loud, and it was a good play by them.”
Atlanta came into that game having beaten the preseason Super Bowl favorites, the Carolina Panthers, 20-6 in Week 1. In Week 2, Vick and Warrick Dunn ran all over the Buccaneers, racking up 261 yards on the ground en route to a 14-3 victory.
But the Saints were sitting at 2-0, too, and for the first time since Katrina, they were home. And they played like it.
The Saints wanted the game to be special for the fans, and it was. The crowd returned the favor by making things much harder for the Falcons.
“It just really made it difficult to communicate with your teammates and communicate with the coaches, even when there was a timeout — a TV timeout,” Schaub said. “I mean, the place was just rocking. And so it was definitely hard for us as a visiting team.”
The Saints dominated throughout, holding Vick and Dunn to 101 rushing yards combined. The New Orleans defense forced two fumbles and sacked Vick five times, helping deliver the 20-point win for the Saints.
“Obviously, at the time, that was probably the biggest game of our lives,” Brees said. “We just knew how much it meant to so many people, you know? And so we wanted that to be a special game, a special outcome for all of them, and I think it was.”
It meant everything to New Orleans
Payton had them ready to play, and the city of New Orleans was grateful.
Robert Alford, a New Orleans native who is now a cornerback with the Falcons, remembers what that game meant to him and his family.
“It was really big. It was really big, just for the city as a whole,” Alford said. “Down there, we had lost everything. I mean, everybody was to ground zero. They didn’t have nothing. So once the Saints came back and they won that game, it just helped the whole city of New Orleans and it helped everybody bounce back.
“It just gave the city something else to focus on besides Katrina, and I think it helped out a lot for us.”
Deion Jones, Atlanta’s rookie linebacker, grew up in New Orleans as well. His father’s mother was one of those who sought refuge in the Superdome.
Jones remembered watching the game with his family.
“I just remember everyone sitting around the TV, pretty much happy that the Dome reopened,” Jones said. “The Saints mean a lot to the city, and it was a point in time where they didn’t even think the Superdome would be back open because of everything that happened, and everyone was just happy being able to have the Saints back in their lives.”
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The Saints went on to finish that season 10-6, winning the NFC South and beating the Eagles in the Divisional round of the playoffs to secure the team’s first NFC Championship bid in team history. They lost to the Bears, but the historic season provided much joy to a region that was desperate for any.
Three years later, the Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV. The team that once brought hope to its city delivered New Orleans a Lombardi Trophy, too.
Two very different teams will face off in the Superdome on Monday. The Falcons come in at 1-1, and the Saints will hope to get a win for the first time this season on the day after the 10th anniversary of that first game back in the Superdome.
What will be the same is the support Saints fans will show for their team. Schaub said that the one thing he’s sure of is that the Superdome will be loud, just like it was 10 years ago.
“It’s always been the way since that moment — since that game,” Schaub said. “The other times I’ve been there, which are probably four or five times as a road team, it’s always been that way. And I don’t anticipate it being any different.”
The Saints’ first game back in the Superdome, that dominant win over Atlanta, and the rest of the 2006 season lifted up the spirits of a region that needed it and helped set New Orleans on a road to rebirth.
Now that the 10th anniversary of the game has arrived, we know that New Orleans and the Gulf region have bounced back, but there’s still much to be done.