Big Easy grateful for its 10th Super Bowl

Published 4:38 pm Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A few blocks from the notorious 17th Street Canal levee breach, where overgrown lots and gutted homes remain easy to find, a pregnant woman walked two dogs up the driveway of a newly renovated house.

Twenty-five-year-old Brynn Strahan widened here eyes and smiled broadly as she considered the Super Bowl’s return to New Orleans, where it was played regularly when she was a child.

The NFL’s marquee event seemed unlikely to return any time soon — if ever — after Hurricane Katrina. Yet on Tuesday, a little less than four years after catastrophe struck — and two months after Strahan and her husband moved into their rebuilt, beige brick home — NFL owners voted to bring their biggest game back to New Orleans in 2013.

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“Granted, there are (abandoned) houses here and there, but everything’s coming back,” Strahan, eight months pregnant, said of her Lakeview neighborhood. “Everything’s being rebuilt around me. I’m optimistic. I never want to leave.”

Strahan’s enthusiasm paled in comparison to the way those who work in the city’s leading industry — tourism — took the news.

“It’s been a long road back and we feel like this is sort of a final validation that the capacity of the New Orleans’ tourism industry is 100 percent back, because we just landed the biggest event there is,” said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

Perry traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the NFL meetings this week so he could assist with what amounts to a $12 million bid to host what will be the city’s 10th Super Bowl, and the seventh in the 34-year-old Louisiana Superdome.

The dome — torn open by Katrina, damaged by rain, infested with mold and soiled by raw sewage when thousands of evacuees were left sweltering in the rancid air there for days after the storm — has undergone more than $200 million in repairs and renovations.

It has been sold out for NFL football ever since the Saints returned in September of 2006. It also has hosted three Sugar Bowls and a BCS championship game. The stadium is due an additional $85 million in renovations under an agreement between Gov. Bobby Jindal and Saints owner Tom Benson, which will also extend the Saints’ use of the building through 2025.

The unprecedented deal, which involves Benson buying an abandoned downtown office tower and leasing office space back to the state, still requires state Legislative approval but has met minimal resistance so far.

“This shows that our city is on the rise, viable and thriving, and I have great faith in what we can accomplish,” Benson said after the Super Bowl vote.

Challenges remain in New Orleans. Work is ongoing to strengthen a repaired levee system, which failed when Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. Blight remains prevalent in some of the worst-flooded or poorest neighborhoods. Police have struggled to get violent crime caused by warring drug gangs under control.

At the same time, much of New Orleans’ historic character remains. Renowned restaurants that people have loved for generations are open all across town, serving refined staples like Creole gumbo, soft-shell crab and shrimp remoulade.

Mardi Gras and major music festivals attract huge crowds again. Both the Saints and NBA’s Hornets have been back full-time for multiple seasons. The city has already hosted college football’s national championship and an NBA All-Star game since the storm. The NCAA men’s basketball Final Four — the fifth to be played in the Superdome since Michael Jordan led North Carolina to a title there in 1982 — is slated for New Orleans in 2012.

“We’re finally getting our step back in the city and it’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of people’s effort and this (will be) a wonderful boost to us, needless to say what it would do for our economy,” said celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who has three restaurants in the city.

In Algiers Point, a riverfront neighborhood of historic, brightly colored shotgun houses adorned with Victorian detail, cafe owner Hillery Moise said she’d been on “pins and needles” waiting for the Super Bowl announcement.

“It matters because people need to come to New Orleans and see how much we are back,” she said. “They will understand why in a few short years people have come back and rebuilt — the resilience of the people, which is mainly because of their love for the city and the people in it.”

Across town in suburban Metairie, former longtime Saints kicker Morten Andersen, who happened to be in town for his election to the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, asserted that the NFL “had to” bring the Super Bowl back the city where he spent “the greatest 13 years of my life.”

“No matter what’s thrown at this city, people still have a smile on their face and a sense of humor and to me there’s no other place in the world that would handle situations the way people in New Orleans do,” said Andersen, a native of Denmark who came to America for college and kicked in the NFL for 25 seasons. “Their ’joie de vivre,’ their love of life is so evident in everything here, whether it’s food, music, culture — football, which is part of the culture.

“Everything’s done with passion here. I think that’s maybe what other cities in America are missing that they could learn from New Orleans, is the way to live.”