Saints to return to Superdome for opener vs. Bucs

NEW ORLEANS -- The Louisiana Superdome will be ready for some football Sunday, and the Saints say they're looking forward to celebrating the end of a stressful week with their storm-weary fans.

Forced to flee to Indianapolis ahead of Hurricane Gustav, the Saints will be able to open their regular season at home as scheduled against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team announced Tuesday.

"We will once again showcase to a national audience that the city of New Orleans is made up of resilient people and that we are ready to stand our city back up as quickly as possible, put this storm behind us and move on with our lives," Saints owner Tom Benson said.

The Saints had announced Monday night, soon after Gustav had passed over the city, that their hope was to keep their season-opening home date as a means to uplift the spirits of a fan base that had been ridden with anxiety that all the rebuilding done in the three years since Hurricane Katrina could be wiped out.

Gustav, however, weakened and stayed far enough west of New Orleans to spare the fragile community from catastrophic damage. Louisiana and team officials hoped the dome, a poignant symbol of suffering during Katrina, and a symbol of rebirth after being rebuilt in 2006, would now be a symbol of strength in a place where residents care too much about the unique way of life in their historic city to give up on it.

New Orleans city councilman Arnie Fielkow said the Saints' impending return "is just tremendously uplifting news, not only for the residents of New Orleans but for residents of the entire gulf coast. ... I would fully anticipate the Superdome is going to be rocking and rolling."

The Superdome was not used as a refuge during Gustav as it was during Katrina. It did not sustain any structural or interior damage and never lost power.

Doug Thornton, vice president of SMG, the company that runs the state-owned Superdome, said that there had been only minor damage -- exterior signs ripped with downed fences and light poles blown over.

Still, Thornton said he had to coordinate with city officials to make sure evacuation orders would be lifted so he could count on the staff of roughly 2,500 people, including police officers on security detail, needed to host an NFL game.

Thornton said another matter was whether suppliers could get in to stock concession stands, suites and lounges with food and drink.

"It takes significant resources to run the dome for a Saints game and we are very pleased that our employees, subcontractors and suppliers will all be available when the doors open on Sunday," said Thornton, who spearheaded the ambitious $200 million, eight-month renovation of the Superdome following Katrina.

Thornton remained in the stadium with a handful of staff during the storm Sunday night and Monday.

A mandatory evacuation had yet to be lifted by New Orleans and several suburban parishes as of Tuesday afternoon, but officials said residents should expect to be allowed home before the end of the week.

Saints officials said they had been working closely with state, local and Superdome officials as they planned their return to be sure the stadium was available, safe and ready to host and staff the game, which is scheduled for noon local time. The team also sought assurances that residents -- their fans -- will have been allowed to return to their homes before the game.

The game could have been switched to Tampa, Fla., because the Saints and Buccaneers both play in the NFC South and meet twice. The Saints are due to visit Tampa on Nov. 30.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, in Indianapolis with the team, said Monday that everyone with the club thought it was important to play in New Orleans this weekend if at all possible.

"We want to be one of the first ones back because we want to play that game and lift the spirits of our city after what's been a tough week," he told reporters at a news conference at an Indianapolis hotel.

Loomis said players, coaches and staff have reported no injuries among family members, but for practical purposes intended to stick to their current schedule of staying in Indianapolis until Friday. A number of players live in areas that lost power during Gustav.

"We're going to continue to practice here and stay in the routine we're in until Friday and then return to New Orleans on Friday," Loomis said.