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Saints hope to return to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans for opener

INDIANAPOLIS -- The New Orleans Saints just want to go home.

After moving the team to Indianapolis this past weekend to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, general manager Mickey Loomis said Monday the Saints plan to return to their home base later this week -- if city officials permit it.

Until then, they'll stay in Indy, suddenly the home of two NFL teams.

By Sunday, when they're scheduled to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener, the Saints hope to be playing in front of a packed house inside the Louisiana Superdome.

"We want to be one of the first ones back because we want to play that game and lift the spirits of our city after what's been a tough week," Loomis told reporters in a hastily called news conference at an Indianapolis hotel. "It's really dependent on the city and the infrastructure and all that, so I hope we can play there Sunday."

Loomis said players, coaches and staff members reported no injuries to family members.

But the scenario is a familiar one for the displaced Saints.

They were forced to evacuate in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. The Saints moved their practice site to San Antonio, split home games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La., and waited eight months to reopen the Superdome after a $200 million repair project.

This time, they sought a facility that would allow them to practice, hold team meetings and watch film like a normal week. And since the Colts practice at their own facility, rather than the city's new $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis was a good fit.

Like government officials, the Saints also changed their evacuation plan. Players were allowed to take family members out of town before leaving New Orleans.

"That was one of the lessons we learned in 2005," Loomis said. "If a guy wants to leave and drive his family out, that's OK. We said 'Send them on their way and then come back to facility.' I think that worked well. ... I think it did help because it was not an unknown for us because we evacuated for the whole season in '05, and we know what the pitfalls are."

Fortunately, the damage was not nearly as severe as it was then or as was predicted.

Loomis said the team's practice facility in Metairie, La., had some downed awnings -- nothing he believed would prevent the team from returning Friday as planned. The Superdome also appeared to be in good condition when the worst of the storm passed.

Doug Thornton, vice president of SMG, the company that manages the Superdome and the neighboring New Orleans Arena said some signs were ripped off the building, fences were down and light poles were blown over but there was no structural damage to the dome's interior.

Still, Loomis, like other New Orleans residents, remained cautious.

"I think it (the damage at the practice facility) is superficial at this point," he said. "But the storm's not over yet."

If this is the worst of it, Loomis believes the Saints could still host Sunday's game against NFC South rival Tampa Bay.

He said league officials have not established a deadline for a decision, and acknowledged city and state officials must lift the evacuation order before giving the go-ahead to play.

Then, he wants to make sure fans can get to the game.

"That's a collaboration effort over the next couple of days," he said, referring to the league office. "I don't know what our options are, but our goal is to get to New Orleans and play there Sunday."

One possibility would be switching home dates with the Buccaneers since the teams play twice each season with each team getting one home game. The Saints are scheduled to visit Tampa Bay on Nov. 30.

But Loomis would prefer not to make another change.

"Our thoughts, No. 1, are with the people of our community, and No. 2, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Beyond that, there's not a lot else," he said. "Based upon the information I have now, I'm pretty optimistic we'll play in the dome Sunday."

Their new hosts, the Colts, have offered more than just thoughts and prayers.

Coach Tony Dungy said the team would provide the Saints with equipment or any other practice necessities. And Colts players, some of whom have friends on the team, acknowledged the hardship the Saints have endured as they prepare for yet another season opener in an unfamiliar location.

"That's horrible," former league sacks champion Dwight Freeney said. "I couldn't imagine having to go to another city when you're supposed to be getting ready at home, and then going to another city and preparing for a game."

Yet Loomis and players are thankful for the reports they're now getting from home.

As they know all too well, it could have been far worse.

"I'm pretty optimistic we'll be playing in New Orleans," he said. "First, we've got to get through the storm and assess the damage and assess whether we can play a game there Sunday. But it's been pretty positive from what the worst-case scenario could have been.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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