NEW ORLEANS — A 20-story-high mural of the Lombardi Trophy, affixed to the glass exterior of bustling hotel that was once a shattered symbol of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, rises like a beacon above the expansive white roof of the Superdome.
The Super Bowl is back in the Big Easy, finally, after 11 years, giving New Orleans a spotlight of global proportion to showcase how far it has come since Katrina left the city on its knees and under water in August of 2005.
“The story is much, much bigger than the Super Bowl,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Monday afternoon. “This is a story about the resurrection and redemption of a great American city.
“The Super Bowl gives us an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
From 1970 to 2002, New Orleans was a regular host of the Super Bowl and hopes to become one again. This Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens meet the San Francisco 49ers in the Superdome, the Crescent City will host the NFL’s marquee game for the 10th time, tying Miami for the most of any city. If all goes well, it hopes to get back in the rotation.
Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, said his group will ask the NFL for permission to put together a bid for the 2018 Super Bowl, coinciding with the city’s celebration of its 300th anniversary.
It is that history, which produced a colorful culture driven by a mix of European, Caribbean and African influences, that makes New Orleans such an attractive Super Bowl city, noted political consultant James Carville said.
“This is not just a city. This is a culture,” said Carville, who lives in New Orleans and serves as the co-chairman of the Super Bowl host committee with his wife and fellow political pundit, Mary Matalin. “We have our own food, our own music, our own social structure, our own architecture, our own body of literature. By God, we have our own funerals.”
Carville pointed out that Dallas spent about $38 million to host a Super Bowl two seasons ago, that Indianapolis spent about $25 million a year ago, and that New Orleans spent about $13 million.
“I wish that I could tell you that it’s because we’re just so much more efficient,” Carville said. “The truth of the matter is we don’t have to create anything in New Orleans. It’s here. It’s been here for 294 years. We just have to take what we have, shine it up a little bit, add a little something here and there – but 294 years of history and culture stand on its own.”
Of course, Carville was not counting the billions of dollars spent in the past seven-plus years to rebuild New Orleans since Katrina pushed tidal surges through crumbling levees and flooded 80 percent of the city.
Extensive renovations to the Superdome, done in several phases during six years, ran about $336 million, transforming the stadium to a facility better equipped to host a Super Bowl than it was back in 2002. The lower bowl has all new seats, wider concourses and more concession areas, not to mention exclusive “bunker” clubs for those who pay top dollar. There are four high-end club lounges around the second deck which did not exist before the storm. The smaller suites ringing the stadium have all been remodeled and more have been added to total 152.
The faded gray siding that lined the stadium when the Super Bowl was last played there has been replaced. The dents from flying storm debris are gone and it has been restored to its original, glistening champagne color, which serves as the canvass for nightly light shows. The roof was completely rebuilt and there is now a public plaza called Champions Square adjacent to the dome, where part of a shopping mall used to be.
The Louis Armstrong International Airport has undergone $350 million in upgrades, with work going on right up until this month.
Streets throughout much of the city, including downtown and the French Quarter, have been repaved.
A new streetcar line, which opened on Monday morning, can shuttle people from the city’s main train and bus station a few blocks from the Superdome to Canal Street, where downtown meets the French Quarter.
There are more restaurants in the metro area than before Katrina. Hotels throughout downtown have been renovated and some new ones have gone up, adding more than 4,000 more rooms than there were in 2005.
The 1,200-room Hyatt Hotel, with the signature giant Lombardi Trophy mural,, finally reopened a little more than a year ago after a $275 million renovation. During Katrina, hundreds of its windows blew out, leaving shredded curtains flapping in the wind. Now it is home to new restaurants and rebuilt convention space.
“The city looks great,” said Jerry Romig, the Saints’ 83-year-old public address announcer, a lifelong New Orleans resident who has been involved in some capacity in the previous nine Super Bowls. “It’s never looked better.”
He also takes issue with the idea that sympathy for New Orleans’ suffering played a role in NFL owners awarding the city this Super Bowl.
“The New Orleanean’s attitude is they would be very upset if the NFL was going to throw you a bone because you went through a hard time,” Romig said. “The New Orleanean would think, `We should get this game every year because we’re the best place for it.’ ... We’ve got everything that’s necessary to make it a success and that’s being shown better this year than past years.”
Pockets of the city still bear obvious scars from Hurricane Katrina, most notably in eastern and low-lying portions of the city – like the lower Ninth Ward – were many homes were wiped out and many residents were too poor to rebuild.
So-called “Katrina tours” are still offered, with vans carting the curious to areas where they can see the remnants of the devastation – abandoned, crumbling homes and schools, and streets overgrown with weeds and brush.
When the city was bidding for the 2013 Super Bowl, it floated the idea of a Super Saturday of Service, whereby volunteers could undertake community projects to improve the city. This Saturday, restoration work will be done on five properties run by the New Orleans Recreational Department, including a high school football field where the Archie Manning’s sons once played. After Sunday, the field will be the new home of the turf used in the Super Bowl.
Despite the community’s ongoing needs, New Orleans has proved repeatedly in recent years that the heart of the city can successfully stage major national events. It hosted college football’s BCS national championships in 2008 and 2012, an NBA All-Star game in 2008 and an NCAA men’s Final Four in 2012.
Yet given how New Orleans was once a regular Super Bowl city, the return of the NFL’s biggest game carries more symbolic weight than any single event since the storm.
“This is just another huge example of how the people of this city, who were 15 feet under water, are now on top of the world,” Landrieu said.
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