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Katrina Victims Hail Return of Saints

September 25, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ By the time 88-year-old Blackie Campo got back to his Shell Beach home after Katrina, everything was gone.

Well, his house, his business and his car were destroyed.

What he did salvage was his New Orleans Saints jacket and an autographed football. And what he held onto were the season tickets he’s had for almost 40 years.

``I got nothing but a concrete slab,″ Campo said. ``But when the Saints get on that field Monday night I can forget my worries for a while at least.″

Any respite is welcome by Campo these days. He and his wife of 66 years are living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer while they try to rebuild their lives. It’s a life that the Saints have been a constant in despite years of losses and heartbreak.

Once, following an earlier storm, Campo took a boat through the flooded woods, dodging snakes and alligators, to get to a game. Until last year, when the Saints played their home games in San Antonio, Campo had missed only one game _ a preseason match.

``That’s our team,″ Campo said. ``They’re back where they belong.″

When the undefeated Saints kick off against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons on Monday night, it will be much more than a football game for many people in the newly restored Superdome, around the state and around the country.

``I can’t wait to get back in there,″ said Vera Guidry, also living in a FEMA trailer since flooding after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm destroyed the New Orleans East home where she raised her family.

``It gives us a chance to yell and scream the way we haven’t been able to since the storm. We need that. We’re going to let out all the pain,″ Guidry said.

For the past 39 years, New Orleans residents have clung to the Saints through the few good times and the many bad ones. It was 20 years before the team managed a winning record, and New Orleans still has only one playoff victory to its name. But the Saints faithful have never been more faithful than this year.

Despite the problems that remain following the hurricane _ large stretches of the city still deserted, streets falling apart, intermittent city services and difficulties with rebuilding _ the team sold out season tickets for the first time in franchise history.

When the game starts, Saints fans still scattered around the country will be watching. Internet postings this week proclaimed the loyalty of far-flung faithful. There will also be parties around town _ even the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, normally associated with Mardi Gras, has a big gathering planned.

But the really lucky ones will be in the Superdome.

``I guess I’ve had season tickets four times,″ said Scott Norwood, a Metairie resident exiled to Tucson, Ariz., by the storm. ``I’d get them, get disgusted and give them up. Then the season would roll around and I’d think, `This is the year,′ and get them again. Now I’m not giving them up again.″

The Saints helped ease the loneliness of being away from his family and home for four months, Norwood said. About eight people from the area who also ended up in Tucson would gather every Sunday at a sports bar for the games.

``Every Sunday for three hours I forgot about everything while I watched the Saints,″ he said. ``I bought season tickets to support the one thing that gave me happiness when I didn’t know if I had a house left or not.″

For Regina Strippling, 37, wife of a New Orleans police officer, the past year has been one of fear and loss.

For the first week following the storm she didn’t know where _ or how _ her husband was. Later the couple learned that his mother, who had been in Memorial Medical Center, died. Their town house flooded, ruining most of their possessions.

Her family is in a new house now, but for Strippling, Monday night will represent a real homecoming.

``Everyone in our section is like family,″ she said. ``We all been there for a long time. But we haven’t seen each other in over a year now, so when we get there it’s going to be lots of kissing and crying. I’ll know things are coming back then.″

For Lionel Alphonso, the game will cap off a week of returns.

The Violet resident may still be living in a FEMA trailer _ his three-bedroom house gone _ but his tavern has reopened. He expects the kitchen and boat hoist to be back in business in about three weeks.

And Alphonso _ aka ``Da Pope″ _ has his white satin cassock and hat ready for Monday night’s game.

``I been dressing up like the pope since 1987, which was the year the Pope visited New Orleans,″ Alphonso said. ``I want people to see me and know if I can be back, after all I went through, we’ll all be back.″

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