Simon Veness reports on the Super Bowl frenzy gripping 'The Big Easy'
Simon Veness reports on how Super Bowl XLVII frenzy has taken a firm grip on 'The Big Easy'.
By Simon Veness
Last Updated: 30/01/13 6:05pm
Surprisingly, the San Francisco 49ers seem to be keeping theirs firmly in check, but then that could be because they realise Sunday's Super Bowl is not the foregone conclusion that many odds-makers and pundits believe it to be.
The vibrancy and dynamism of this city (and, notably, the Ravens, but more of that later) is the first, second AND third thing you notice when you arrive. It is the first time they have hosted the NFL's huge annual hyperbole-fest in 13 years and the first since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to 80 per cent of the metropolitan area in August 2005. To say they are keen for this week would be the understatement of the decade.
New Orleans is über-eager, super-ready and hyped to the eyeballs. The catastrophe of Katrina has not been forgotten - indeed, we will have a tour of the new levee system with the Corps of Engineers later this week - but the lingering scar is definitely fading with the soothing salve of time. If ever there was a city purpose-built for a Super Bowl, it was The Big Easy, pre-2005, and they are anxious to see it look that way again in 2013.
The eager-beaver volunteers are everywhere, waving, smiling and happy to chat about everything that's in store this week (be sure to check with Paul Higham's daily blog for the blow-by-blow account of being here), and there is a danger we will be Super saturated before the weekend even arrives.
But it is long overdue. The story of Katrina is already well documented as a historical event of major significance here in the US but the effects of the super-storm little more than seven years ago are still there or all to see. On the way here from my base in Florida, we drove along the Mississippi coast from Biloxi to Long Beach and were gobsmacked at the still-evident effect of the tidal surge wrought by the Category Five monster.
The seafront has not been washed over so much as scoured, savagely scraped away by a meterological bulldozer that completely leveled miles of coastline for up to a mile inland. It's not obvious at first, but, when you realise that EVERY structure you're looking dates back only a few years, you start to grasp the awful scope of the devastation inflicted on a hapless population.
More than a million people were forced to relocate before and after Katrina - the biggest migration in the country's history - and 1,836 people were confirmed dead in the aftermath, with another 175 still officially listed as "missing." The total area affected through Mississippi and Louisiana amounted to some 90,000 square miles, or roughly the size of the United Kingdom. The rebuild cost is currently at $75billion, and still counting.
The former Louisiana Superdome (changed to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in 2011) remains the icon of New Orleans, a gigantic spaceship plunked squarely in the centre of downtown and a shining beacon of both the immediate outcome of Katrina and the recovery efforts ever since. The $185million renovation bill was seen to be worth every cent on September 25, 2006, when the Saints played their first game back in their traditional home and a city officially went 'gonzoid nutso' at the return of their heroes.
The Superdome subsequently acted as a giant symbol of revitalisation, with another $125million being spent to update and add new facilities over the course of 2008-10 and the effect noticeably spreading out into the sections worst hit by the flooding, which included several parishes completely inundated and losing 100 per cent of their schools and housing.
To their eternal credit, the likes of Drew Brees and other Saints stars allied themselves to the post-Katrina cause with total commitment, and, while the rebuild is not complete - some of the worst-hit areas are barely back to 60 per cent occupation - they are a long way down Recovery Road, with current mayor Mitch Landrieu earning major plaudits for continuing to champion the city's cause.
Which, of course, brings us right up to date and fully explains the amazing zeal of the local populace to put on a good show. It helps that almost everything is in the city centre, much of it highly walkable - or accessible on the wonderful and historic Streetcar system of Tennessee Williams fame - and immensely fan-friendly. Several media voices have already been heard to opine that this is where the Super Bowl should be EVERY year.
It is hard to argue when the welcome is so genuine, the buzz is so lively, the attractions are so obvious - and the food and drink are off-the-charts amazing. This is the home of Cajun and Creole culinary creativity and, if there is a food heaven for those who like their meals heavily spiced and with more flavour than a boatload of masala poppadoms, it is definitely here in Louisiana.
Last night, for instance, we enjoyed a pint of the special Mardi Gras bock at the Gordon Biersch brewery-restaurant and hit upon the evening treasure trove of Mulate's, "the original Cajun restaurant." Unable to decide between their Zydeco Gumbo, Crawfish Etouffee, Cajun Boudin and Shrimp Remoulade, I shamelessly tried all four and left not a trace of their passing.
And, while listening to the captivating Cajun sounds of the Lee Benoit band, it was easy to understand why so many people have beaten a hurried path to the Crescent City since it was founded by the French Mississippi Company in 1718.
Even the teams themselves have confessed to falling for its charms, with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco admitting to being out at midnight early on, when "it seemed more like the weekend than Monday night!" Rest assured, Baltimore fans, your team will NOT be out that late again this week.
It does, perhaps, explain though the contrasting performances of the two teams at Tuesday's big Media Day, our first proper chance to assess the mental readiness of the combatants for Sunday's XLVII showdown (live on Sky Sports 1HD from 10.30pm).
The 49ers were first up and, while there was nothing to suggest they are not up for the task, there was a notable business-as-usual attitude that bordered on the downbeat. Only livewire offensive lineman Joe Staley seemed keen to tackle the record 5,205 journalists with gusto, jousting with his usual brand of jocular bravado with all-comers while, on the podium next door, quarterback Colin Kaepernick dealt in short, clipped responses to virtually everything that came his way, not exactly a deer caught in the headlights but certainly a rookie level of callowness.
By contrast, the Ravens as a group were buzzing, alive, energetic. You got the sense they were ready to play right then and there; just move the media off the field and off we could go.
It isn't exactly a sure-fire litmus test of how things will go come Sunday, but it certainly felt relevant with the city's own eager buzz to be back in the world's spotlight. Of course, there are also fully four days to go before we get to the big kick-off but, right now, I would question the bookies' 4.5-point advantage to the 49ers. We were far too quick to write off the Ravens in Denver and New England recently, and I will need to mull things over a bit more before I give my usual pre-game prognostications.
Stay tuned now. Meanwhile, I have a few more restaurants to sample...