NOLA’s Super Recovery

"Welcome to Hell," SMG regional VP Doug Thornton told a reporter as they prepared to enter the Louisiana Superdome August 28, 2005 – three days after Hurricane Katrina drove tens of thousands of New Orleanians into the stadium for shelter.

By then, the ‘Dome was already beginning to fester with human waste and garbage from some 30,000 evacuees, cooking into a putrid stew with the sauna-like temperatures.

But to hear some of those same New Orleanians tell it 13 months and $185 million later, the re-opening of the Superdome was the closest thing to heaven they’ve seen since. The NFL’s New Orleans Saints’ September 25th homecoming received Super Bowl-style hoopla, complete with music from U2 and Green Day. To make the return home even sweeter, the Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 in front of a sold-out crowd of 70,003.

Other celebrities on hand to re-open the ‘Dome included former President George H.W. Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, filmmaker Spike Lee, and rappers Snoop Dogg and Lil’ Jon. The Goo Goo Dolls and Cowboy Mouth played free outdoor shows and New Orleans natives Kermit Ruffians, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint sang the national anthem.

It was hard for many to imagine such a rebirth was possible, let alone practical, just a few scant months ago.

The storm caused the failure of 70 percent of the Superdome’s vast roof. When the wind blew off roof vents, water poured in, flooding basements and soaking virtually everything inside. Mold quickly formed on all the seats and fixtures. It was a biological nightmare – cleanup crews had to enter the building in hazmat suits.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Superdome had become the "world’s largest petri dish."

The restoration of the Superdome, which began in earnest in March, is nothing short of miraculous. It’s not yet completed – carpet still needed to be installed in the luxury suites at game time – but enough was done to play a football game, get butts in the seats and stage a pregame concert by two of the biggest rock bands in the known universe.

According to the AJC, 9.1 acres of roof were replaced, 1.6 million square feet of carpeting removed, 4,000 tons of trash swept out, 3.8 million gallons of water pumped from the ‘Dome and its garages, 750,000 square feet of Sheetrock replaced, 58,000 seats cleaned and 10,000 more replaced. Even its air has been scrubbed.

"Just last week, we tested for the final time and got our clean air certificate," Thornton told the newspaper. "The air quality inside the ‘Dome is actually better than the outside; there are more mold spores outside in downtown New Orleans than inside the ‘Dome."

Despite doubts that New Orleans itself, with its population still less than half its pre-Katrina level, could even sustain a pro football team, the Saints have sold out its 2006 season for the first time in history.

"I think it’s a bright future," Thornton told the AJC. "We’ve already had conversations with the NCAA and with the NFL [about hosting their showcase events]. The Super Bowl situation is totally dependent upon a long-term lease with the Saints. And they are going to play a collegiate national championship [the Sugar Bowl] here in 2008.

"Our hospitality infrastructure is intact, which is something people lose sight of."

Among the improvements fans should immediately notice is the brightness – the coral walls have been painted a clean gray with blue accents and all the light bulbs and fixtures have been replaced.

Larger, state-of-the-art video boards and scoreboards were installed and the stands themselves were modernized, featuring stainless-steel counter tops, equipment, lighting, menu boards and graphics.

The luxury suites, when completed, will sport new plasma-screen TVs, sound systems, drink holders, seats, lights, walls and ceilings. The old sliding glass doors have been removed and glass dividers separate each suite, according to Newhouse News Service.

Shortly after opening the Superdome for business, designers were expected to complete blueprints of the new club lounges and concession areas. Comprising the bulk of the ‘Dome overhaul’s second phase, the work is scheduled to be finished next summer at a cost between $22 million and $25 million.

"Some people did not think we should do that project so quickly, that we should let it wait along with everything else," Newhouse quoted Blanco as saying. She signed an executive order in December to expedite the reconstruction.

"It was such a massive project, if we pushed it on the back burner, it would be years before it would come back online. That building became the symbol of the storm and everything that went wrong," she said. "I want it to be the symbol for the recovery and everything that is right."