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Saints' hometown relishes return of football—and a little normalcy

NEW ORLEANS—This city deserved a break.

And it got one Sunday afternoon, as New Orleanians who have endured Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters for two weeks enjoyed a small taste of normalcy: NFL football.

With the once-proud Superdome in ruins and their team opening the season on the road, New Orleans Saints fans found dry spots in the flooded city and gathered around radios and televisions powered by generators or batteries. They cheered on a team that has broken their hearts so many times, but on Sunday came up with a last-second victory to mend them.

"It's a good relief," said Larry Hirst, a bartender at Johnny White's Bar & Grill in the French Quarter, which has been an enduring watering hole and refuge, staying open round the clock since the hurricane.

Donning a black and gold Saints cap, the 60-year-old rode to the bar Sunday morning on a matching black and gold mountain bike. About 15 minutes before game time, regulars and plenty of newcomers found their way to the snug bar that still had no electricity—13 days after Katrina struck. They depended instead on a small, gray radio with a slightly bent antenna. Paul Prino, a bartender-bouncer, positioned an even smaller battery-powered television, trying to pick up a signal.

Prino, who fashions himself as a thrifty shopper, bought the 5-inch television for $5. Maybe that's why he could only get a clear picture for the Chiefs-Jets. So instead, they listened.

Some stopped by for Saints football, others for the frolics. Everybody came for the beer, which was a bit warm—until an Army unit from Texas dropped off 40 pounds of ice.

"Free beer for the Army!" customer Steve Bartley yelled.

With grins on their faces, the soldiers politely declined, leaving more for Bartley, 54, who had the best seat in the place, sandwiched between the radio and the television.

Sunday was how a city recovers, Saints fans said, surrounded by so much uncertainty.

Chris Love, 28, needed the emotional break. He was born in Uptown New Orleans, which is still flooded. Until two weeks ago, he lived in Eastern New Orleans, also still flooded, but has moved in with a friend in the French Quarter, which survived the worst of Katrina.

"It's the start of football season, and I'm a football fan," said Love, as he finished a bologna sandwich and orange juice at Molly's at the Market, another French Quarter bar. "It takes my mind off it a little bit."

But not completely.

Love and other residents still have yet to contact all of their family members and friends. They have yet to learn the full damage to their property.

"Knowing you have a chance to lose something of value, like a house, it's mind-boggling what's going on," he said.

From a sports perspective, things might get worse.

The Louisiana Superdome suffered major damage while housing tens of thousands of hurricane evacuees. Ramps that once led more than 65,000 fans into the Superdome are now bare, except for the Army's 82nd Airborne.

The Superdome has hosted six Super Bowls, and is also home to college football's Sugar Bowl and other sporting events.

It's not clear yet where the Saints will play their home games, although the team is considering Baton Rouge and San Antonio, Texas, its home since the storm.

The Saints' home opener against the New York Giants, which was scheduled for next Sunday, has already been moved to Giants Stadium on Monday night.

There is fear in this city that Saints owner Tom Benson might relocate the team, a major threat to a city hoping to regroup is tourism industry.

"I think that would hurt the city," Love said.

Across the river in the Jefferson Parish town of Westwego, Korie Folse sat on his front porch with his mother listening to the game.

"We can't see them playing in the dome anymore and we can't watch them on television," he said, "but at least we can support them on the radio."

Right then, Saints cornerback Jason Kraft intercepted a pass, and Folse's mother Glenda sprung up clapping.

"With everything New Orleans has had to go through in the last few weeks, I'll take a playoff victory," Korie Folse said. "We deserve it."

In Baton Rouge, displaced New Orleans residents helped fill the Hooters restaurant on College Avenue for the Saints game.

Drew Moisant, a Jefferson Parish firefighter, said he was on his way from the parish firehouse, where he had spent the previous 72 hours, to Marshall, Texas, where his family is in a shelter.

The Saints season-ticket holder said continuing to follow the beloved, if long-suffering team means a lot in a time of crisis.

"It's normalcy, part of life, definitely," he said. "It's one of the things I truly enjoy."

When the Saints pulled out the victory, Moisant joined the cheering but resisted the temptation to make it more than another step in making the region feel whole again.

"Day to day, baby," he said, before continuing his journey. "We have to be positive."

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(Gary Estwick reports for the Akron Beacon Journal. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Susannah Nesmith of The Miami Herald and Danny Robbins of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): FBN-WEA-KATRINA-SAINTS

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