Ten years after Hurricane Katrina blew ashore, shaking New Orleans to its core, the city's recovery has come in fits and starts. In the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States, some in the city have pointed to a wild card that helped lift the city's spirits, and even boosted its fortunes in the long run.
"Our hopes and dreams appeared to be lost," said Gina Wildmon, general manager of the Allegro Bistro. "But then, we found a spark."
According to some, the city's revival can be traced to Sept. 25, 2006. That was the date the Saints came marching in.
In the middle of collapsed roofs, flooded buildings and lingering power outages that shuttered local businesses for 10 months at least, the New Orleans Saints touched down in the Superdome for their first game back since Katrina. The Saints won 22-3 over the Atlanta Falcons that Monday night, and the victory came in many more ways than just the final score of the game.
"It was so uplifting for our business and everything surrounding our restaurant, as well," said Wildmon, whose restaurant sits just across the street from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. During the hurricane and recovery, the state police turned the restaurant into their temporary headquarters.
"We weren't even able to begin to recover and rebuild until several months after the storm," said Wildmon. "When we finally did, the building permit process took months because all of the local businesses were going through the same thing."
Meanwhile, the Saints—already an institution in the city—did even more to endear themselves to the shellshocked citizens. Displaced by Katrina, the team reeled from a grim 3-13 record in the 2005 season that set them up for an impressive 2006, where they came a game shy of going to the Super Bowl. That disappointment didn't stop members of the organization from channeling resources and energy into rebuilding the city.
"When the Saints returned, we got a huge shot in the arm," said Wildmon, who stated that her revenue numbers nearly tripled during that first football season. "We have been around for 23 years, but the Saints' impact has especially been felt in the last decade. The new life to our city stems back to the New Orleans Saints."
Local business operator Randy Dobbs also saw the restaurant he ran, a Bourbon Street burger joint named Krystal, benefit from the Saints. "Their influence on the city is infectious," said Dobbs, who ended up giving back to the Saints when he bought season tickets for the return year to the Superdome.
The rubble left behind by Katrina helped provide grist for the Saints' own revival, which culminated in a first-ever Super Bowl win more than four years later, when the team defeated the Indianapolis Colts.
The team's contributions to New Orleans' rebuilding is especially notable given that, six months before its return to the Superdome, team owner Tom Benson was strongly considering relocating the franchise to San Antonio.
However, then-National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue convinced him otherwise, appointing an advisory board, which concluded that the Saints should stay in the area. The influence that the NFL had on Benson turned out to be crucial for the city's business, according investor and CNBC contrbutor Carol Roth.
"The Saints became a rallying point for the area," said Roth.
"From restaurants and bars that host fans before, during and after the games, to nearby neighbors charging for parking … small businesses in particular are real beneficiaries from having a NFL team in their hometown," said Roth, an known advocate for small businesses.
Not only have the Saints influenced the New Orleans area in a huge way, but the NFL has bought in to the area's businesses, as well.
The 2013 Super Bowl was held at the Superdome, and the NFL has invited the city to apply to host in 2019 and 2020.