Super Bowl: 'This is the pinnacle of my life. Now I can die'

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Super Bowl victory was far more than just a sporting triumph for a city still living with the effects of Hurricane Katrina, reports Rupert Cornwell

'Amen". Such was the banner headline in the Times-Picayune newspaper yesterday, and such was the feeling that infuses America's most bewitching, most blighted and most beloved city after the magical night of 7 February 2010, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. New Orleans, you can at last believe, is back.

Four years and five months ago such a feeling of ecstasy would have been inconceivable. On 28 August 2005, New Orleans all but died when Hurricane Katrina inflicted upon it the worst natural disaster in modern American history, leaving 80 per cent of the city under water, and sending two thirds of the population into exile – including, for an entire season, the Saints themselves.

After just 12 months the team came back to their refurbished Superdome, the covered arena that in the days after Katrina had been a fetid, overcrowded symbol of a city – and a country's – inability to cope. But for many others, exile has been permanent; only 350,000 people live in New Orleans today, compared with over 500,000 before the storm struck. In the small hours of yesterday morning, however, it seemed as if the whole country had descended on the place.

Natives tend to shun the French Quarter, viewing it as a tourist trap best left to out-of-town conventioneers. Not this time. Bourbon Street was a teeming, delirious mass of humanity, ecstatic not just that their team, long known as the "Aints" for the futility that has marked most of the 43 years of its existence, had actually managed to win the most glamorous prize in US sport.

Finally, a city that in the best of times had always been associated with crime, violence and urban dysfunction, was making news for the right reasons. As a Times-Picayune columnist observed, for once "a New Orleans civic entity was actually executing a sophisticated task at a consistent level of excellence".

Most locals, of course, didn't reflect on the historic event in quite such scholarly terms. "This is the pinnacle of my life – now I can die!" said 46-year-old Randy Sumrall, one of the permanent exiles who, like so many of them, had been drawn back for a night they hoped and prayed would symbolise a city's rebirth. "This is the happiest place on earth," exulted a young woman.

Daryl Turner, one resident who never left, also surrendered to the pandemonium of the moment. "Right now it feels that no matter what obstacles, there ain't nothing we can't do if we pull together. That what's we needed in this city, to make something happen."

And happen it did. In traditional New Orleans fashion, impromptu bands took to the streets. As victory over the favoured Indianapolis Colts became first a likelihood, then a certainty, fireworks soared into the sky. Everything, from the flags that hung from balconies to the T-shirts of the revellers and the faces of a good number of them, seemed to be coloured in the Saints' black and gold. Everywhere was daubed the fleur de lis, the team's logo and emblem of the city, founded by the French and named after Philippe II, Duc d'Orléans.

Then there were the chants: "When The Saints Go Marching In", of course, but also of New Orleans' unofficial catchphrase, "Who Dat?" The two words are a contraction of the slogan true believers in the football team have clung to through the long years of uselessness: "Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints?" Finally, the city has the answer it wanted. Nobody could.

Sunday night, however, was only the beginning. Yesterday the team flew home from Miami. This afternoon the Saints will hold their official victory parade – and it's still a week before Mardi Gras proper on 16 February. Never will New Orleans' annual party be as long, as intense and as joyous as the one that kicked off with victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

But the sense of renewal is not limited to the sports arena. Lost in the excitement was the fact that on the day before the game, the city had acquired a new mayor. Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans' first white mayor in 32 years, is a Democrat. More important, he is well connected in Washington, where his sister Mary is the senior US Senator from Louisiana. If anyone can refocus the federal government's attentions on the unresolved problems left by Katrina, the feeling runs, he can.

And as a bar owner on Bourbon Street pointed out: "Most people don't realise how damaged the city still is." Not only for swathes of New Orleans' former population but also for some of its major businesses, the hurricane was the last straw. Much rebuilding has taken place, even in the ninth ward in the east of the city, which was hardest hit by Katrina.

But thousands still live in temporary trailers, and a third of New Orleans' houses are unoccupied. Most seriously – despite repairs and some strengthening – the levee system remains vulnerable to another major storm (although as one post-Katrina evacuee declared in the giddy aftermath of the Saints' triumph, "another hurricane could come right now and I'd be back".)

Outside New Orleans' cathedral, they said prayers for the team before the game. But the real prayer is that victory will seal the city's recovery – and no one yearns more for that than Drew Brees, the Saints quarterback and hero of the Super Bowl.

His own journey to the summit of his sport symbolises the renaissance of his adopted city. In 2006, he came from San Diego to New Orleans, plagued by a career-threatening shoulder injury. Many believed he would never recover his old form. Several NFL teams that would have been more attractive destinations than New Orleans decided to pass on him. But Brees never lost faith, and now he's playing better than ever.

"Most people didn't know if New Orleans could come back, or if the team could come back," he said at an emotional press conference in Miami. "But we did. We played for so much more than ourselves, we played for our city and we played for the entire Gulf Coast region."

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