NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Win or lose on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints will return from their first-ever Super Bowl to a hero's welcome, complete with their own Carnival parade, from a long-suffering city still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.
Super Bowl fever has swamped the Big Easy, where everything from Mardi Gras parades to church services has been rescheduled to make sure fans can catch the kickoff of their team's first-ever shot at the National Football League championship spectacle.
The Saints' surprisingly successful season has been a powerful tonic for residents still recovering from the killer August 26, 2005 storm that flooded nearly 80 percent of the low-lying coastal city.
Hundreds of people died in their homes after the levees broke and water levels rose the rooftops. Even more died in the chaos that followed -- including some of those stranded in the Superdome football stadium that served as a shelter.
Locals, who had angrily brooded over the sluggish pace of recovery, have for months now greeted each other on the street with the joyously ungrammatical Saints' fan chant, "Who dat? Who dat! Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?"
The emotional boost came at a time when disaster-struck residents typically become disillusioned and fearful that their lives will never return to normal, said Charles Figley, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Superdome football stadium -- once a horrific symbol of the abject failure of government to help thousands of people displaced by the storm -- is now an emblem of the city's rebirth.
"It's new life. It's new hope. It's promise," said Figley, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.
"The Saints are in the Super Bowl -- Anything is possible."
Most cities only throw parades if their teams win the Super Bowl.
But fans here have been greeting their team at the airport after every game this season. And city officials say the floats will roll and the marching bands will play for the Saints on Tuesday whether they win or lose.
"Beating the Indianapolis Colts may be more important to the players, but the fans will be proud of the Saints -- win or lose," explained Vincent Sylvain, a radio talk show host on WBOK-AM radio.
The Saints' Super Bowl bid has put New Orleans back in the national spotlight "right at the time when we think many people have forgotten us," Sylvain said. "It's more than just a game."
The players agree.
"It's a source of strength for us just knowing we're playing for much more than a Super Bowl," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
"We have an opportunity to give them so much hope, lift their spirits. No city deserves a champion more than New Orleans."
A million people were displaced by Katrina and tens of thousands have not yet returned.
The Saints spent a year as nomads, with owner Tom Benson pondering relocating the team while the Superdome was repaired.
The notion that the once-woeful Saints could even reach the Super Bowl five years after Katrina is so fantastic that residents here credit the team with infusing the city with triumphant optimism not seen since the storm.
"No matter what happens in the Super Bowl, the Saints have already given this city a gift that will last forever," novelist Tom Piazza agreed, as he tried on a black-and-gold Saints cap at a drugstore in the flood-scarred Lakeview neighborhood.
"No matter what stories other cities tell about themselves, New Orleans has the greatest story of any city in the country and maybe the world."
If past is prologue, Damion Frey predicted he will see a surge of business after the Super Bowl at the Art Accent Tattoo Studio near the French Quarter.
"We're doing more fleur de lis, more Superdomes and more 504s than we did before the storm," said Frey, referring to the Saints' domed stadium and the city's telephone area code.
Winning the championship would be a welcome feat, he said. But it would just be icing on the cake.
"We 'won' -- we done got there."