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Saints return to Crescent City, where fans' joy, hope haven't waned

NEW ORLEANS -- People lined up by the hundreds to buy Monday's Times-Picayune, which hollered "AMEN!" from its front page. The Saints' Super Bowl victory was a prayer answered in this struggling city, which seemed different because of it.

Swarms of fans in black and gold greeted the players as they stepped off a chartered plane at the suburban airport, cheering them with "Who Dat!" chants. The Saints, cellar dwellers for decades, delivered not just their first Lombardi Trophy but optimism for their city, a new sense that the unimaginable -- better schools, less crime and even honest politicians -- really is possible.

"The Saints kept hope alive in this city that better days were coming," said Shannon Sims, a 45-year-old criminal-court administrator in the crowd. "(They) were the force that kept us moving forward."

Hurricane Katrina battered the Saints and even knocked them out of town for a while, as it did to many New Orleanians in 2005. Now the team is better than ever, and its hometown fans hope to follow suit.

"It shows the rest of the country that we have resilient people and this is a city of winners," said Dwight Henry, 46, a co-owner of the Buttermilk Drop bakery and cafe off St. Claude Avenue near the Lower 9th Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina.

"Since Katrina, we've been able to start successfully from the bottom," said Henry, whose business was badly flooded. "We couldn't go anywhere lower."

Sunday's win was not just about football for New Orleans, said John Magill, a historian at Historic New Orleans Collection.

"We're all being told that we're sinking, why bother rebuild it, there was so much of that attitude," Magill said. Thanks to the Super Bowl win, he said, Americans will view the city in the positive light that it deserves.

The day before the Saints' 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleanians elected a new mayor in Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the son of the majority-black city's last white mayor. Landrieu won with 66 percent of the vote, garnering votes across racial lines.

Hope is high that Landrieu will lead the city in the right direction. About 80 percent of the city's pre-Katrina population has returned, and hundreds of millions of dollars in rebuilding money still has to be spent, but the murder rate remains high, the city's levees haven't been fully rebuilt and the city could be flooded again.

For now, though, it seems the sky's the limit, and the Saints' Super Bowl title is the reason.

Monday, it looked like a wild Carnival parade along a nondescript strip of road leading from the airport where the team's airplane touched down.

Thousands of fans lined the road with their Saints jerseys, "Who Dat!" chants, homemade signs, fleur-de-lis garb, face paint and Mardi Gras costumes (like the Saint-a Claus fellow). Saints coach Sean Payton held the Lombardi Trophy aloft through the sunroof of his car, eliciting wild screams.

At the airport, 37-year-old courier Aaron Washington said "the dawn of a new day" had come. A brass-band version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" blared from his car stereo.

"This team has allowed us to get past Katrina and look forward to better things," Washington said. He watched the game with dozens of friends and relatives on a big-screen television in front of an eastern New Orleans home that was rebuilt after the 2005 hurricane flooded it with 9 feet of water.

Fans in the Lower 9th Ward erupted in jubilation, with neighbors hugging and screaming.

"It felt really good," said Ann Schexnyder, a 51-year-old dental lab technician. "They've come along, and we've come along."

For Schexnyder, it was a moment of joy surrounded by stark reality. Her street is dotted by boarded-up homes, abandoned by flood victims who were unable to come back or couldn't find the will to rebuild.

"One house after the other is empty," said Schexnyder, whose own house is still being rebuilt. "I had some bad luck with contractors. I have extension cords around the house. My plumbing is not finished. FEMA took my trailer away."

The Saints were temporarily relocated to San Antonio after Katrina. In exile like the rest of the city, the players lived out of hotels and did weight training at Gold's Gyms. They went 3-13 that season and for a while practiced at a high school.

Meanwhile, San Antonio's mayor said he had set up talks with Saints owner Tom Benson about moving the team to Texas. Even the future of the Louisiana Superdome, where thousands sought refuge after Katrina, was in doubt.

"They wanted to tear down the Superdome! You can't do that to us," said Lacey Hyer, holding a mimosa after a noisy, all-night party in the French Quarter.

The stars had begun to align for the Saints by 2006. The Superdome was fixed up. Payton and quarterback Drew Brees were brought in to help the team. Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush was obtained by a stroke of good fortune in the draft, and the Saints sold out their season tickets. They went to the NFC Championship Game for the first time that first season back in New Orleans.

And on Sunday, after just their ninth winning season in their 43 years, the Saints became champions. Long-suffering fans throughout the city shot off fireworks, danced in the streets and on rooftops, and celebrated a team, and maybe a city, reborn.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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