By Mary Rickard
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - To many residents of this storm-battered city, the New Orleans Saints carried more than a trophy when they came home on Monday after winning the first Super Bowl in their 42-year history.
"Our spirits are lifted," said Peggy Fuselier, one of thousands of people who lined Veterans Memorial Boulevard outside the international airport to cheer their champions. "It's the greatest thing that could ever happen to this city."
To many, the Saints brought a shot at redemption and deliverance from the terrors of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and killed 1,500 people when it came ashore 4 1/2 years ago.
New Orleans still has problems to address -- mainly the highest murder rate per capita of any U.S. city and vast stretches of houses that are still unfit for habitation due to flood damage.
But after a halting recovery from Katrina, the Saints offer New Orleans a chance to close a grim chapter in its history and embrace the spirit of a winner.
The Saints, formed in 1967, for decades were one of the worst teams in the National Football League, derisively called "The Aint's." The team's transformation to a high-scoring powerhouse has brought fans to near-religious dedication.
Interest in the team is not limited to New Orleans.
Sunday's audience of 106.5 million people set a new record for Super Bowl viewers and made the game the most watched U.S. telecast ever, according to early ratings on Monday.
Once the Saints had secured their 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Miami on Sunday night, joy and celebration swept over the city's cobble-stone French Quarter.
"When you watch people sit and cry because a football team won, that says it all," said Charlie Martinez, general manager of Bourbon Vieux, a restaurant on Bourbon Street.
Along with a championship team, New Orleans has a new mayor in Mitch Landrieu, who won election on Saturday by a wide margin. Landrieu, the city's first white mayor in more than 30 years, pledged to bridge racial divides that have grown under Ray Nagin, the current mayor.
The Saints give also New Orleans another reason to throw a world-class party. The victory parade is scheduled for Tuesday and will start in front of the Louisiana Superdome.
"I wouldn't trade these memories for all the doubloons in Mardi Gras," said Robert Peri, who said he spent Sunday night on the balcony of his French Quarter hotel, playing "When the Saints Come Marching In" on his cornet.
(Additional reporting by Kathy Finn; Writing by Chris Baltimore; Editing by John O'Callaghan)