A year ago, the Superdome was a scene of squalor and heartbreak. On Monday, it was one of much-needed euphoria.
The Saints, usually among the NFL's bottom-dwelling teams, kept their improbably perfect record intact with a rollicking 23-3 victory over the favored Atlanta Falcons, improving to 3-0 for just the fifth time in its history.
"We understand what happened," New Orleans receiver Joe Horn said. "We understood the importance of winning for [the fans]. If we didn't win, they'd still be partying, because this organization is still in New Orleans. In their minds, they could have lost the team and the Superdome. But we wanted to win. We wanted to put the icing on the cake."
In the first wave of fans making their way inside were Jimmy and Marilyn Felder, who spent the first two days of Katrina in the Superdome before wading through knee-deep water to meet a friend on nearby Loyola Street who had a car and a route out of town. A year later, after the revival of the stadium, the Felders spent $1,250 for two season tickets.
Along with about 10,000 other evacuees -- a number that would triple by midweek -- the Felders were hoping to ride out the storm from the seats in the lower level of the dome. But when Hurricane Katrina's winds ripped huge holes in the dome's roof and water began pouring in, everyone was moved to the breezeways that encircle the stadium.
"That was the scariest part," Marilyn said. "We weren't sure if the roof was going to start caving in."
Replacing the 9.7-acre roof cost $32.5 million and was the most labor-intensive part of the renovation. But it wasn't what the Felders noticed first about the rebuilt Superdome. It was the fresh smell of the place.
"It was unforgettable," Jimmy said of the dome's odor before, when there was no air conditioning and inside temperatures hovered at 100 degrees. "Like comparing roses to" garbage.
Marilyn said some of her friends who also were evacuated to the Superdome were emotionally unprepared to return to the stadium. Not her.
"I'm ready," she said. "I'm ready for my city to regain its status. There's no place like home."
The Saints, who have a new coach and quarterback and a superstar rookie in former USC running back Reggie Bush, already have matched their victory total from last season. Monday's matchup was their first true home game in 13 months; they played their 2005 "home" games in Baton Rouge, La.; Houston; and New Jersey.
For a city that has played host to a record nine Super Bowls, this game was almost treated like a 10th. Fans began lining up at the doors more than four hours before kickoff, itching to get a first look at a building many people had thought damaged beyond repair.
In addition to the usual jerseys and hats, the Saints stores in the stadium sold T-shirts commemorating the event, some reading simply "Home Sweet Dome." Outside, giant confetti cannons blew gold-and-white strips into the sky. Everyone, it seemed, wore something in support of the team -- Bush jerseys, gold hardhats, even a few fans sporting "SuperSaints" capes.
After the victory, the stadiumspeakers blared "When the Saints Come Marchin' In," and team owner Tom Benson danced at midfield, twirling an umbrella.
"Our fans have been through so much and persevered so much," Saints running back Deuce McAlister said. "This is their reward from us."
The pregame festivities included a coin toss by former President George Bush and performances by U2, Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls. Also in attendance were NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell; his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks.
"When we walked in here last fall and saw this, and all the things that happened here, and you think about what this community's been through, it's emotional to be a part of that," Goodell said of the renovation. The sold-out crowd was raucous from the start and got even louder just 1 1/2 minutes into the game, when the Saints scored on a blocked punt and took a lead they would never relinquish.
Even the defeated Falcons could appreciate the importance of the moment.
"It was a historic night," Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick said. "I'm disappointed because we just didn't get anything going. The last time we played the Saints last year we controlled the game. But tonight was another story."
Vick called it "definitely the loudest crowd I've ever played in front of."
In that crowd of 70,003 was William Howland, an Army medic who spent six days in the Superdome during the storm and subsequent flooding. He wasn't sure he wanted to come back. He is haunted by the memory of a man committing suicide by jumping from the second deck. So many ailing people, so few supplies. "They asked me if I wanted to come," said Howland, 27, among 150 first responders invited to watch from the field on folding chairs. "At first I wanted to say no, but I know that having seen so much negative, I wanted to see something positive."
Howland barely recognized the place. Instead of dim bulbs running on emergency generators, there were bright lights that made the field colors come alive. The stench was gone. And happy people were howling, cheering, high-fiving and swirling towels handed out at the doors.
"When I was here last, everybody was unhappy, sad, angry," said Howland, an officer in training raised in Rustin, La. "There were a lot of different conflicting emotions, but they were all negative. To be here now, everybody's happy. It's a rebirth."
"Obviously a football game is not going to solve all of our problems, or take away the misery or the hurt that's gone on here," Johnson said. "But if it's just for three hours, you never know how that can re-energize somebody, give them some joy, and bring them some hope."