February 02, 2010
Recovery in the Big Easy
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Just days before Super Sunday, I cannot resist writing about a team, and more importantly a city and a people I have come to love.

There was so much more behind the New Orleans Saints victory over the Minnesota Vikings -- clinching the NFC championship -- than the average sport fan might imagine.  Their victory was about the recovery, renewal, and indeed the emotional and psychological resurrection of a people and a city.

In late August of 2005, New Orleans was devastated by hurricane Katrina.  The horrific symbol of this great city's destruction and plunge into darkness was the Superdome in the days immediately following the storm.

A recent AP story told it well:

If desperation has a smell, it permeated the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina - rancid and overpowering as thousands [of stranded and homeless survivors] sweltered in a cauldron of human misery. "I would gag, man. It would just gag you -- a smell you'll never forget," said Doug Thornton, who has run the Superdome since the late 1990s. "Perspiration, human feces, urine, mold, wet ceiling tiles, wet carpet." The smell grew ever more potent as roughly 30,000 storm victims were stranded in the dome without power or plumbing, while temperatures outside rose to 95 degrees in the days after the hurricane.

The Dome, after the humanitarian drama which unfolded in its bowels, and after the winds had torn off its 9.6 acre outer roof, stood as a horrific stigma of the devastation visited upon the lyric and beloved community known to the world as the Big Easy.

The two questions facing Thornton and state officials were whether it should be rebuilt, and if not, what that would mean for the community?  But Thornton was insistent: "The minute we turn that roof white again, people are going to believe in this recovery," he told then-Governor Kathleen Blanco. Today Thornton is regarded as a hero in spearheading the 200 million dollar rebuilding project.

One might ask whether there was not a kind of ethical imperative to rebuild the Dome.  Some certainly opined to the contrary, asking how so much money could be invested in the Dome, when that same money could be invested in rebuilding the city.  In hindsight, we can see clearly now that rebuilding the Dome was an investment in humanity and in the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents whose lives were devastated by Katrina.

I have dear friends in New Orleans.  As one of them explained it to me, quite simply, rebuilding the Dome as the home of a regenerated Saints football team was essential to the rebirth of the community.  She notes the effect this has had first and foremost on the immediate community of her own family:  

The Saints bring the family together. I can hardly ever get my teens in the same room with my husband and me, but at game time somehow everyone is there together:  pulling for the same thing, high-fiving and hugging each other on the big plays, holding hands and, yes, praying out loud before the tough plays.

But it's the Saint's impact on the larger community since Katrina which has been electrifying, beginning with quarterback Drew Brees who joined the team in 2006. Notes my friend:

The Saints bring people of all socio-economic levels together. Outside of the Dome, blue collar and white collar workers are all black and gold collar on game day.

Brees, the Saints' charismatic quarterback of super-hero like stature to the New Orleans community, has rebuilt homes there with Habitat for Humanity, supported Children's Hospital of New Orleans and launched the  Brees Dream Foundation, with the mission of fighting childhood cancer and helping children in need. To top it all off, Brees is not shy about sharing his Christian faith.  

In light of all this, how absurd is it that by the end of last week the NFL was claiming ownership to "Who Dat?!" -- the Saints fans' cheer, today as commonplace as "hello" in every day Louisiana lingo?  

Whether the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV or not, no one can deprive them of what they have already won:  the triumph of goodness, and a job well done in assuring a community's recovery and flourishing.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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