As host of four Final Fours and a record six Super Bowls, the Louisiana Superdome is no stranger to the spotlight. But when Hurricane Katrina chased evacuees inside last August, the world watched as 145 mph winds peeled the stadium like an orange. That destruction became a symbol of the city's broader failures. Now, one year and $185 million later, the 31-year-old stadium is almost ready for the Saints' home opener on Monday Night Football (Sept. 25, vs. Falcons). And those behind the rebuilding hope the Dome will soon become a symbol of recovery.
More than 3.8 million gallons of water and 4,000 tons of debris wound up in the Dome post-Katrina and experts predicted it would take 14 months for the facility to reopen. But after a December visit from then-NFL commish Paul Tagliabue, officials pledged to get the place ready by September. Funding came from several sources, including $121 million from FEMA and $20 million from the NFL. Owner Tom Benson's share? Zilch. In exchange for its millions, the NFL got the city to reduce—by up to $20 million—the penalty the team will owe if it leaves town before its lease expires in 2010. Such is life in the Big Easy.
Fixing the 9.7-acre roof was the toughest—and, at $32 million, the costliest—part of the job. Katrina had scalped the rubber membrane that covered the metal dome. To replace it, a 125-man crew built a minivillage on the roof and spent five months there. Their work camp, 27 stories off the ground, had its own weather station and portable johns. "You just shut the door and hope there are no wind gusts while you're in there," says project manager Tom Keller, whose hard hat will be displayed in the Hall of Fame as part of a future exhibit on the renovation.
What can fans expect when they return? For one thing, some temporary concession stands. For another, the club rooms won't be ready to host pre- or postgame parties, and some box suites will be missing carpeting and countertops. On the plus side, fans will be greeted by new artificial turf, four new scoreboards and 10,000 new seats to replace those damaged during the storm. And players for home and away teams get refurbished locker rooms. "People will be patient because they're dealing with this type of rebuilding in their own homes," says Doug Thornton of Dome operator SMG.
The renovation is scheduled to be finished by late 2007, and the project architects hope to include local design touches that fans can identify with, such as glass walls in the corners of the four ballrooms (one at each corner of the Dome) so fans can mingle, Bourbon Street-style. "We were inspired by the history of the way New Orleanians interact on balconies," says architectural director Paul Griesemer. "We hope to replicate that. Maybe not to the extent of what goes on at Mardi Gras, but we'd love to see people wave and scream to their friends."
Still, erasing Katrina's memory is like shadowboxing a ghost. "We saw the worst of humanity in there," says Kory Johnson, 28, who decamped to the Dome when Katrina hit and has since moved to Houston. "I've gone to Saints games since I was young, but it'll take a lot to get me back." For other fans, though, a Heisman Trophy winner is enough. Since drafting Reggie Bush, the Saints are expecting a complete sellout of single-game and season tickets.
And once again, they come marching in.