NEW ORLEANS -- If the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina wasn't enough to remind the Saints what it was like when New Orleans flooded, the latest storm to threaten the Gulf Coast certainly did.
With Tropical Storm Gustav looming, the Saints have a plan if they need to evacuate from New Orleans.
"In the event that Hurricane Gustav forces us to evacuate, the team will temporarily relocate to Indianapolis," said executive vice president/general manager Mickey Loomis. "If an evacuation is called for, we will fly to Indianapolis at that time and stay there for the entire week preparing for the Bucs. We will practice at Lucas Oil Stadium and we will return to New Orleans on Friday."
As much as any Saints player, offensive lineman Jammal Brown could relate to the anxiety Gustav was causing in south Louisiana. A first-round draft choice in 2005, Brown bought his first house in an upscale golf course development in eastern New Orleans only months before Katrina hit.
"Last time, (team officials) called me up and said, 'We're going out to Oakland for a week. Pack up a week's worth of clothes,'" Brown recalled. "So I pack up some clothes and get out to Oakland and look on TV and every thing I own is under water."
Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, smashing levees and flooding 80 percent of New Orleans.
The Saints are scheduled to open the regular season in the Superdome against Tampa Bay on Sept. 7. The storm is expected to strike the Gulf Coast -- anywhere from Texas to the Florida panhandle -- around Tuesday morning.
"We will be focused and ready to play the Buccaneers," coach Sean Payton said. "We're planning on that game being at the Superdome, but the powers that be will have a clear plan in place if that should change any or if our preparation should have to be somewhere else. It won't be a distraction; we won't allow it to be."
The Saints have played two full seasons before sellout crowds in New Orleans since ignoring the naysayers who predicted pro football had no future in the Big Easy after Katrina. Even faced with the potential of another hurricane-related disruption, players said they cherished the opportunity to play in a place that really needed them, both in terms of the morale boost they provided and the community service projects they undertook.
Cornerback Jason Craft, who's been with the Saints since 2004, said a lot of players initially did not want to return to New Orleans after their displacement to San Antonio because they didn't really understand what life in post-Katrina New Orleans would be like. As they began to appreciate the extent to which they could inspire hope, they embraced the move and were rewarded with a once-in-a-career experience during a 2006 home-opening victory over Atlanta in an emotional Monday night game.
"That first game, that right there, I'll never forget that," Craft said. "Even though we didn't make it to the Super Bowl that year, that was my Super Bowl. I never seen anything like that and I was just happy to see people out in the streets, just happy to see the Saints play that day. That's probably one thing I'll always remember about New Orleans is that day."
Drew Brees was the first major free agent to come to New Orleans after the storm and bought an old home in a historic neighborhood only six blocks from areas that flooded during Katrina.
Brees, whose foundation has raised nearly $2 million for projects aimed at helping children around the city by rebuilding schools, playgrounds, athletic fields and the like, said witnessing the city's recovery has been both inspiring and disappointing, often depending on the neighborhood in question.
"There are some areas where it looks like it happened yesterday," Brees said. "Those are houses people used to live in and they're not (living there) any more, so where are they?"
Brown's first house is one of the empty ones. He's rebuilt it, but is trying to sell it and has moved to a largely undamaged suburb west of the city.
At the same time, Brees has been pleased to see new construction, or flooded buildings being restored, throughout town. He's also met young business owners who saw the rebuilding city as "a land of opportunity." Brees can relate, having come to New Orleans after his stint in San Diego ended with a career-threatening shoulder injury.
"I felt like we were all kind of in this thing together," Brees said. "I'm trying to rebuild my career coming off the injury and changing teams, kind of a fresh start for me, a fresh start for the organization and a fresh start for the city."
Their home stadium was a prime example. During Katrina, it became a symbol of suffering while being used as a refuge of last resort. After being rebuilt with new and better amenities, it became a symbol of rebirth, and the Saints' first season there was a memorable one, as they went to the NFC championship game for the first time.
In 2007, the NBA's Hornets returned full time to the arena next door and are thriving as well.
"The more you talk to people and the more you drive around, I think you just feel like life is back," Brees said. "When the storm happened, your mind-set had to be: we're going to make things better than they were before. We're going to try to turn this into a positive somehow, some way. I see that happening in a lot of areas. ... So just to kind of be there and just feel like you're kind of a part of the rebuilding process is rewarding."
The reward, of course, will be even greater if the progress achieved during the past three years isn't undone by the latest threat.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report