New Orleans filling up for Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Mardi Gras falls on a Sunday this year.

The city of the Saints is filling up with ex-New Orleanians and others ahead of the Super Bowl, many looking to cast off a legacy of football futility and natural disaster - others just looking to party down in one of the world's greatest party towns.

"We're gearing up for Sunday just like Mardi Gras day," said Earl Bernhardt, a bar owner in the French Quarter. "We're staffing just like we do for Mardi Gras, and if the Saints win, we won't close at all. We'll stay open as long as people are standing."

After 43 years in exisitence, the NFL's Saints will make their Super Bowl debut in Miami on Sunday, facing the favored Indianapolis Colts.

Fans from most cities would be headed to South Florida about now. But for ex-pat New Orleanians, the game is triggering a pilgrimage home. And for everybody back in town, the party's already started.

A few are taking the week off in the countdown to game day. Others are punching the clock, but not getting much done. Saints jerseys, "Who Dat?" T-shirts and black and gold beads are the uniform everywhere you go.

The French Quarter's narrow streets also are awash in the team colors. As revelers cruise down its streets, strangers give each other high-fives

"It's been all Saints all the time," said Steve Sabrier, an oil field worker who marched from the Superdome to the French Quarter after the NFC championship. "I pity anybody who needs something done in New Orleans these days. We can't concentrate on anything but the game."

Sister Mary Rose, a Dominican nun who attends every Saints game and teaches at a Catholic school in the Quarter, said the feeling of sheer excitement in the city is almost tangible. "I think 'exuberant joy' is the word," the nun said. "And it has brought such a unity to us, such a bond between all the people here it's just amazing."

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, New Orleans transplant Belinda Hernandez vowed to be in Miami if the Saints made the big game.

"But seeing the fever pitch in New Orleans and knowing how we party, I changed my mind," Hernandez said.

"Who wants to be on Miami Beach when they can be in the French Quarter with the Who Dats for the game?"

So Hernandez turned down some friends in South Florida, who offered to get her tickets.

Besides being Super Bowl weekend, this is the start of carnival season that ends Feb. 16 on the real Mardi Gras. There are four parades scheduled in New Orleans on Saturday and two on Sunday - but they're rolling early to avoid conflicting with the game.

All eyes on the game, starting Sunday at 5:25 p.m. local time.

Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau says there's no question the Saints have created something special - this time for the city's tourist trade.

"This is turning into a very big weekend for the hotels in downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter," said Romig. "We did a survey and hotels are running about 90 percent full late in the week, and that jumps to 95 percent on Sunday. People are definitely coming to New Orleans for Super Bowl."

Sorry, Colts fans, but it's a different story up north.

Kimberly Harms, a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Convention&Visitors Association, said there was no noticeable jump in hotel occupancy there for the weekend. She noted, however that one hotel had set aside 44 rooms at the special rate of $144 in honor of the forty-fourth Super Bowl. If Indianapolis wins, she said, the rooms will be free for those staying in them.

At New Orleans' Roosevelt Hotel, an upscale hotel where suites start at $259 a night and go up, marketing director Mark Wilson said they are seeing a "huge surge" of people who want to celebrate the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

"Lets face it, not everybody can get a ticket to the game," Wilson said. "And a lot of people seem to think being in New Orleans is a good alternative."

The Roosevelt is about80 percent booked, which is 10 percent to 15 percent more than normal for a weekend with no convention in town, Wilson said. The big seller is the hotel suites, with much of the business coming from Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.

"People are booking the entertainment suites, which are great for parties of 25, 35 people," he said.

"Some are probably just people looking for a party. But a lot are former residents, I think. People in New Orleans have looked for this day a long time and now they want to be here for it."

Police will increase their coverage in the French Quarter this weekend, adding approximately 600 officers, police spokesman Bob Young said. That's about the number the city would deploy if New Orleans were hosting the game.

Rick Watson, and his wife, Katherine, are among the natives coming back.

Now residents of North Carolina, 35-year-old Watson said it took them a long time to believe the Saints had really made the big game, but not much time to decide where to watch it.

"When something big happens, you go home, and this is big," Watson said. "Besides, where would you rather be if the Saints win, the French Quarter or Miami? Even if they lose you want to be in New Orleans."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.