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QBREES9 01-27-2010 12:28 PM

Saints symbol of pride for rebuilding city
 
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Behind the church stands its former school building, which is still a windowless shell, the inside blown out by flood water. Across St. Claude toward the Mississippi River, the neighborhood is a ghost town. Just about every other house remains shuttered with plywood windows, waiting to be rebuilt or demolished.

That’s the good part of the ward, where the water hit about eight or nine feet high. Roughly a half-mile in the other direction, across Claiborne Avenue toward where levees snapped, the neighborhood is all but gone, falling under some 15 feet of water as the result of the overflow from the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal.

It’s as if the houses were fallen leaves on a driveway, swept away by a giant broom. The only sign there were once homes in this part of the ward is the occasional stone slab for a foundation. Or steps that lead to nowhere but up. Or maybe a chain-link fence that still stands, surrounding nothing.

The streets are mostly a wreck. Giant potholes and divots big enough for small animals to hide in are scattered about. The roads also undulate worse than some of the damaged roofs, dipping and diving because the weight of the flood water changed the stability of the soft, sediment-based ground. Driving on some of the streets is an off-road experience.

This scene isn’t restricted to the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s repeated in places like St. Bernard Parish to the east and in Gentilly to the north, closer to now-ominous Lake Pontchartrain.

When you take it all in as you address those 200 people – many of them dressed in a New Orleans Saints jersey for Sunday service – explaining why you’re visiting their church hours before the NFC championship game, professional objectivity is washed away. You stare at the curious faces, many of them looking worn and weary from the years of rebuilding, and there is only one thing you can say as you finish.

Go Saints!

Party time

Like so many Saints fans, Deandra and Milton Carr held a party Sunday at their home on Charbonnet Street. As 40 to 50 people gathered at their pretty brick home, complete with new cabinets and a matching hardwood floor, it was a chance to celebrate two momentous occasions.

First and foremost, there was the Saints game, where New Orleans broke 43 years of frustration by beating the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in overtime to make their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

Second, this was the Carrs’ first party in more than four years, a “house warming” of sorts, the 56-year-old Milton said. As residents of the Lower Ninth Ward for some 25 years, the Carrs used to entertain this many family and friends five or six times a year.

“I’m not a big football fan, I’m just really learning the game,” said Deandra, 54, who has a small Saints flag attached to the window of her car. She described that life here is now “tolerable.” As she spoke, she pointed to a set of cars roughly 25 yards from her front door where she suspected a drug deal was going down.

“We can’t depend on the city to help us right now,” she said. “It’s still too hard. … But [the Saints game] puts a smile on your face and helps you forget the day-to-day problems.”

“This was known as the service area of the city way back when,” Milton said. It’s the area where the maids and butlers and other people who worked on the other side of town years ago made their home. It’s about two miles around the bend of the Mississippi from the French Quarter in an area also known as the “Back-O-Town” to locals.

For the Carrs, it was a place where they were surrounded by family. Six of the nine homes on this block of Charbonnet used to house relatives. Only three of the six have family now.

Moreover, the rituals that used to bond the family are gone. Every Thursday used to be lawn-cutting day. As the men in the families returned from work, they would one-by-one grab a mower or edger or whatever other tool and pitch in to trim the yards of all six houses. When they were done, the men would gather in the carport behind the Carrs’ house and drink beer as they relaxed.

Despite the neighborhood’s reputation for crime even before Katrina, it used to look like one big-time party. From orange to pink to purple to green, the vibrantly painted homes of the Lower Ninth Ward used to reflect the splashy spirit of New Orleans. There was pride in this area because it was mostly family-owned – not an oversized rental community like so many poor neighborhoods.

After the disaster, the interesting colors that made the area unique were gone, covered in the greenish gray mud that was left after the flood. Now, the colors are slowly starting to come back.

Put the emphasis on slowly.

“You had to scrub that stuff off by hand and it took forever,” Milton said, describing the process of removing mud and painting over the house’s beams in order to prevent mold growth. It took him and three other men from his family four days to do one house. It was obvious they needed help.

“Some people were upset with the Hispanics who came in here to do all the work, but I’m not one of them,” said Carr, who is black. “We needed them. We didn’t have people here to do it.”

Most families in this part of town couldn’t afford to return, the challenge of rebuilding too overwhelming to consider. Throw in dishonest contractors and other scam artists said to take advantage of the situation and the frustration was too much.

Deandra said others lost their homes because of paperwork. As houses were passed from generation to generation in this area, the paperwork wasn’t always done. In the aftermath of Katrina, the city apparently claimed the property.

But mostly, it’s just too hard to come back. Some of the Carrs’ family is in Houston still, where they fled initially after the hurricane’s damage left the ward flooded for months. Some are in Dallas.

Milton is a trained electrician, a former union president at Domino Sugar and serves as a tour guide. As a fifth-generation native, Carr can talk in vivid detail about every part of the city. He used to have family everywhere around town, making mid-day pit stops an easy routine.

That’s gone, but Milton flashes an optimistic smile through it all. He is the embodiment of the sign posted on St. Claude Avenue, just as cars cross over the bridge into the ward.

“Welcome to the Lower Ninth Ward. Remember Our Past. Celebrate Our Future.”

Go Saints!

The calling

Saints quarterback Drew Brees(notes) often talks about the calling he felt when he got to New Orleans during a free agent visit in March 2006. Like coach Sean Payton, running back Reggie Bush(notes) and many other members of the team, Brees has been a beacon of hard work in a city where the job is years away from being complete.

Brees has helped reopen a school in the area and works with a group of local businessmen to come up with more ideas for rebuilding the city. He even bought a damaged home in the Garden District, he and his wife eating off folding chairs and trays for nearly two years before the house was complete. In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor frustration.

“I tried to look a lot deeper than just on the surface,” Brees said. “Coming to a team that had struggled a little bit coming off a 3 13 season [in 2005]. Obviously they had been displaced to San Antonio and played home games all over the place – Baton Rouge, San Antonio, you name it. And you’re coming back to a facility that had been used by the Coast Guard and the government as kind of a staging ground for rescue missions and everything.

“You’re looking around at a lot of the neighborhoods and there are still boats in living rooms and trucks flipped upside down on top of houses. Some houses just off the foundation and totally gone. You just say, ‘Man, what happened here? It looks like a nuclear bomb went off.’ For me, I looked at that as an opportunity. An opportunity to be part of the rebuilding process. How many people get that opportunity in their life to be a part of something like that?”

That is a noble sentiment and a wonderful rallying message. In turn, the folks in this town have taken to Brees and the high-flying Saints during this historic season. At Casamento’s Restaurant in the Garden District, five-time oyster-shucking champion Mike Rogers wears a T-shirt that says “LaBreesiana” boldly across the front. Brees’ name is everywhere, including on some religious symbols.

But the symbolism of what the Saints have done in returning here and succeeding in the aftermath of the worst natural-driven disaster in the country’s history is deeper. For a time, many people in the city thought the Saints were going to leave and even the team itself considered that an option.

Instead, the team has returned and is thriving more than it ever has. The sometimes comical days of the old Saints have been replaced by a picture of success. By something that is called super.

As Father Louis Couvillon, 64, made note of that several times as he gave his sermon Sunday at St. David’s.

“We are one as a community, together pulling for the Saints. Go Saints.” Couvillion told his audience.

Afterward, Couvillion explained the bigger picture as he sees it.

“There’s a corporate identification with the Saints that people both inside and outside identify with the city,” Couvillion said. “When we see the Saints succeed, we feel as a city that we can succeed and people outside see that we can succeed. We identify with success, with rebuilding and carrying on against what nature did to this area.

“It is a symbol and just a symbol. If the Saints lose, the sun will come up the next day and the city will go on … but it has become a feel-good story for the people here. There’s a parallel between the lack of success of the team and the reputation of the city. The city has a reputation of being a loser, of being corrupt, incompetent and ineffective. People need any kind of sign or symbol that otherwise is possible.”

Go Saints!

Saints symbol of pride for rebuilding city - NFL - Yahoo! Sports

Choupique 01-27-2010 12:39 PM

Re: Saints symbol of pride for rebuilding city
 
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Rebuilding Together New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS — Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the icon of a city in which citizens wear the fleur-de-lis on their rolled-up sleeves to symbolize pride in their team and faith in the renaissance from Hurricane Katrina.

To the students of Lusher Charter School, he is a walking monument to the power of philanthropy and hope for a hospitable but long-suffering sports town that desperately wants to crown its own winner.

Two days before the NFC championship showdown between the Saints and Minnesota Vikings at the Superdome, Brees' No. 9 jerseys easily outnumbered the black-and-gold gear worn by hundreds of students and faculty Friday at the exclusive campus in Uptown.

The comprehensive-arts middle and high school has a soft spot for a Saint so popular in the city that bumper stickers proclaim this "Drew Orleans."

Brees and his wife, Brittany, both unabashed ambassadors for the Crescent City, have donated $450,000 through his charitable foundation to help refurbish the storm-ravaged schoolhouse and football field.

More than a drive-by sports star throwing money at blight, Brees regularly makes unannounced visits to Lusher. He checks in on the projects he is funding, such as the $50,000 weight room he designed.

He delivered the 2009 commencement address to the so-called "Katrina Class." And the school's multiple orchestras and dance teams feted the couple in October when they christened the new gridiron — the Brees Family Field.

"When you meet Drew, you just know how he really cares for the students here," said Margaret deVeer, Lusher's student council vice president.

The 11th-grader shares a tale familiar to many of the 1,560 K-12 students whose lives were upended when Katrina shredded the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

Displaced with her two siblings to live with her godmother outside Chicago while her parents tried to salvage their home, deVeer was unsure whether she would return to her birthplace — or if she even wanted to.

But deVeer fell hard for Brees and the Saints during their storybook run to the 2006 NFC championship game, which they lost to Chicago.

"I love the spirit of New Orleans. I love the city's passion," said deVeer, 16, decked out in Brees' white road jersey. "When I watched the Saints winning, that was like home for me. I saw my home again. Why wouldn't I want to come back?"

She enrolled at Lusher in January 2006, when the charter school inherited a dilapidated, 1939 public schoolhouse that required $950,000 in renovations.

What's more, it needed its dislocated teachers and staff, whom Katrina had scattered across the country, to come home.

In stepped the Rev. Michael O'Connell, then-pastor of the Basilica of St. Mary's in Minneapolis.

He is friends with Michael Cowan, a St. Paul native who is married to Kathy Riedlinger, Lusher's chief executive officer. O'Connell's parishioners at the basilica and Ascension Church in North Minneapolis donated $50,000 to Lusher, which used the money to lure back five teachers.

"I knew how successful she was and was exceedingly distressed imagining what it meant to Kathy that she wouldn't be able to do what they ought to be doing," said O'Connell, now the rector at Ascension Church. "It gave me great satisfaction that I knew exactly where that money was going."

More than once, Riedlinger has shared her affection for the Saints quarterback with O'Connell.

"Nobody can kiss her on the left cheek because that is where Drew Brees kisses her," O'Connell said.

As for the conflicting loyalties Sunday's game presents, the Minnesota clergyman left no doubt where his allegiance lies.

"Tell Kathy I wore the fleur-de-lis last weekend rooting for the Saints, but unfortunately I lost it and will not be able to wear it this weekend," O'Connell said.

SLOW, STEADY REVIVAL

Katrina's aftermath is everywhere in the city, from the din of jackhammers and saws to the sea of construction barrels on highways and random destruction that still scars neighborhoods both posh and poor.

With each passing year and new demographic report, New Orleans shows signs of revival, particular in tourism, while remaking itself in the image of those who returned after the deluge.

In 2008, 7.6 million people visited the city, up from 7.1 million in 2007 and 3.7 million in 2006, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Tourists spent more than $7.5 billion in 2008, more than double from 2006, yet still below the $9 billion average of pre-Katrina years.

In July, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated New Orleans' population had increased about 8 percent in the past year to 366,644 — still about 100,000 fewer residents than before the storm.

While New Orleans can reclaim its status as a premier national sports destination, with four national championships scheduled for the Superdome in 2012-13, the rebuilding is unrelenting.

Katrina destroyed or severely damaged more than half of the city's 200,000 housing units. A November report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center estimated 29 percent of residential properties are vacant or blighted, the highest rate of any American city.

"We are still in a perception battle," said Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's not as bad as two years ago, but there are still questions: Are we over this? Is the city back? What's New Orleans like?"

SYMBOLIC GAME

Katrina remains a powerful story line entering Sunday's game, with Brees serving as the recovering city's greatest ambassador.

The bond between quarterback and fan base is one of the strongest and most genuine in sports.

A former San Diego Charger, Brees signed with New Orleans in March 2006, barely six months after the hurricane crashed ashore. He chose the Saints over Miami for reasons greater than their six-year, $60 million contract offer.

At the time, the Saints were coming off a 3-13 season in which they were forced to play home games in Baton Rouge and San Antonio. The Superdome was a wreck. Talk swirled about owner Tom Benson moving the team. Overturned trucks and boats were piled on top of destroyed houses for miles.

"You just say, man, what happened here? It looks like a nuclear bomb went off," Brees told reporters this week. "I said this from the beginning, I felt like it was a calling.

"An opportunity to come here and not only being a part of the rebuilding of the organization and getting the team back to its winning ways, but to be part of the rebuilding of the city and the region. How many people get that opportunity in their life to be a part of something like that?"

It started with salvaging the Superdome, which had come to symbolize the horrors of Katrina and a city that literally drowned while the world watched.

More than 25,000 people escaped the hurricane's fury and massive flooding that ensued after the levees failed, only to walk into another disaster in the shelter of last resort.

Doug Thornton, vice president of the Superdome's management company, was there for five days of hell, when the power went out, the sewers backed up, food and water were rationed, Katrina's winds tore off 70 percent of the roof — and no one came to the rescue.

He directed humanitarian efforts from a heliport on the plaza. He carried a handgun for protection from agitated mobs of hungry and thirsty survivors unsure whether they were eating their final meals.

Ten people died in the dome, most from natural causes and drug overdoses. There was one suicide.

Thornton was the final person evacuated. As the chopper carried him out over his flooded city, he never expected to see the Superdome again.

"It was the poster child for misery and suffering during Katrina," Thornton recalled.

Debate raged over whether to raze the battered stadium that had hosted 26 seasons of Saints football, six Super Bowls, four Final Fours, two BCS championship games and the 1988 Republican National Convention.

In a city desperate for hope, Thornton led a public relations blitz to rebuild the Superdome not only to retain the Saints but as a symbol of renewal.

"The sooner we got that building back in commerce and turned this roof white again, people were going to believe that this recovery can happen," he said. "Because if you can rebuild a 2 million-square-foot building, there's hope for your neighborhood."

'THE CULMINATION'

On Sept. 25, 2006, 13 months after Katrina struck and after a $200 million renovation, the Saints marched back into the Superdome and defeated the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 on "Monday Night Football."

The tear-drenched homecoming set the bar high, though the energy level is expected to be off the charts for Sunday's NFC title game, New Orleans' first as the host city. The Saints, who joined the NFL in 1967, have never been to a Super Bowl.

"This is the biggest game in the history of the Superdome because our home team is hosting the championship," Thornton said. "That Monday night game will always be special. But Sunday will be totally different.

"It is the culmination of all the hard work and dedication of the people of New Orleans."


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