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Superdome exceeds 'wildest dreams' of stadium savior Doug Thornton 10 years after Hurricane Katrina

NEW ORLEANS -- He walks these corridors almost every day. The memories are rarely far from his mind.

Yet Doug Thornton still gets choked up more than once as we tour the Superdome and reflect on the harrowing days and months that followed Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005, and nearly wiped this New Orleans icon off the map.

It's as if those memories sneak up on Thornton when he passes a certain spot or reflects on a specific moment, pulling him back to another time.

Sometimes he's overcome with sadness. Sometimes pride. Often both.

"When I'm at a game, it's totally out of mind. But it's usually when I'm alone at night or in here on a Saturday or Sunday, it's kind of eerie. Because you can almost hear the voices, you can hear the crowd, you can smell the smell," says Thornton, the Superdome's longtime manager who became its savior after the storm.

Thornton will be on the field Sunday, as he is for all the games, when the New Orleans Saints play host to the Houston Texans in a nationally televised preseason matchup that was arranged by the NFL to commemorate this 10th anniversary weekend. (Up to 250,000 people evacuated to Houston because of Katrina). The Superdome, which was filled with so much despair in those days after the storm, will be filled with the kind of revelry and community that Thornton says was so important for New Orleans to recapture.

Thornton, along with the National Guard, helped keep the badly damaged Dome on life support during its darkest days after Katrina, when the crowd of evacuees in the stadium swelled from an estimated 14,000 people before the storm to an estimated 35,000 by the end of the week -- despite having limited generator power, no air-conditioning, no running water.

Then he led the building's remarkable recovery in the 12 months that followed, ensuring that the Saints would have a home to return to at a time when there was a very real fear the team might leave for good.

"This was a part of our social fabric. ... We didn't want to lose it!" says Thornton, who oversaw a rebuilding project that included 850 workers -- engineers, architects, roofers, carpenters, iron and steelworkers and many more, some whose parents originally helped build the stadium 30 years earlier.

Thornton, 56, says the Dome's recovery was also a "statement to the United States and to the world that this was New Orleans putting a stake in the ground."

Ten years later, they've accomplished more than they ever imagined.

"I never thought we would be where we are today," Thornton says. The Superdome is in many ways is stronger than ever at age 40, thanks to $336 million in repairs and renovations since Katrina -- a number that will grow when state-of-the-art video boards and more amenities are added over the next year.

"[It's] a completely modernized building, having hosted a Super Bowl, a Final Four, Wrestlemania, two BCS championships, two NBA All-Star Games, a Women's Final Four next door [in the also-renovated NBA arena]," says Thornton, whose official title is now executive vice president of SMG, the company that manages both facilities for the state, as well as many other venues around the country.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought we would be this far."

Thornton imagines there will be a tear in his eye before Sunday's game -- assuming there are any tears left by then. Thornton plans to mark the anniversary Friday on the field with a quiet gathering of staff members and some others who were there during the storm. Then on Saturday, the official anniversary date, he'll attend a much larger event in the neighboring arena that will include a speech by Bill Clinton.

"The Katrina anniversary every year, every single year, is emotional for me," Thornton says. "But I think this year, after 10 years, I'll be able to look back and say, 'You know what, it was a tough time. But in a way, I feel like our city is much better, the progress we've made since then, the accomplishments we've had at the Dome.' I'm very proud of that.

"So it's bittersweet. The bitterness is the struggle. And the sweetness is the pride."

The flashbacks are even more frequent around the time of each Katrina anniversary.

"That August heat, you hear the rainfall, and it just brings back those memories," Thornton says. "The people who lived through it here during those five days [before and after the storm hit], you'll never ever erase those memories."

Thornton doesn't want to erase them. Not completely. Not that he could, even if he tried.

He's proud as we go inside the Superdome's control room and he rehashes an incredible tale of crisis management that took place the morning after the storm hit. As the floodwaters rose, they threatened to sink the Dome's generator -- its only source of power -- which would have turned an awful situation into complete chaos.

So the National Guard tracked down sandbags across the city and placed them around both the generator and the outer door to the room. A hole was punched through the wall to run a fuel line directly to a diesel truck.

Thornton smiles as he points to the markings they made on the wall, charting the height of the water every 30 minutes in case they hit the breaking point.

"I told our guys, 'Don't ever erase this. You can't ever paint over it,'" Thornton says. "This little section of the wall is history."

Yet Thornton doesn't want Katrina to be the lasting image for people when they think of the Superdome.

And he made damn sure it wouldn't be its final image.

"I would rather them think about the colorful history that this building represents," Thornton says. "The Michael Jordan shot [in 1982], the Ali-Spinks fight, the Pope visit, the [Republican National Convention] when it was here in '88, the [2009] NFC Championship Game when the Saints won to go the Super Bowl. I want people to think of Joe Montana's five touchdown passes to beat the Denver Broncos and Adam Vinatieri's field goal to win the Super Bowl. That's what I want them to remember. Not destruction, despair and hopelessness.

"Katrina's always gonna be part of the history, too. To me, it's another significant chapter in the book, but it's not the title of the book."

We go and find the spot where Thornton was standing, just off the sideline, on the night the Superdome reopened for Monday Night Football on Sept. 25, 2006 -- perhaps the most emotional spot for him in this entire building.

As U2 and Green Day took the stage at midfield for the pregame show that night, Thornton turned instead to scan the sea of happy faces in the stands. And only then did it dawn on him that on the morning Katrina hit, he had stood in the exact same place, where a lightning rod had plummeted to the turf through a hole in the roof.

Thornton flashed back to the people who had been in those seats that morning, huddled and shielding themselves from the rain and falling debris. Thornton says it was the moment when he most feared for their safety -- and his -- as he helped the National Guard team that was stationed inside the Dome evacuate people to a safer place.

When Thornton saw people in those same seats, standing and cheering one year later, the moment "crushed" him. But then the lights came on and New Orleans treasure Irma Thomas sang the national anthem, and "all was right with the world," says Thornton, his face lighting up.

The tears well up when we walk past a secluded corner near Elevator 2, where Thornton used to pass an elderly woman and say hello during the first few days after the storm -- she was a "chubby little lady with white hair," he recalls with a smile -- until one day she was gone.

"When I walk by that corner, I can see that woman," Thornton says, his voice cracking. "I get emotional. Even after 10 years, you think about stuff like that, and it just kind of chokes you up. What happened to her? Where did she go? Did she make it?"

He recalls where he was at 2:30 a.m., three days after the storm, when someone busted in and yelled, "We've got a man down!" after a National Guardsman shot himself in the leg while being attacked. Thornton and others feverishly rushed to the site where other Guard members had the assailant pinned down inside a locker room.

And Thornton will never forget the spot where he stood with Dome security director Benny Vanderklis, not far from the Saints locker room, with the stink of trash and human excrement and sweat and humidity reaching its pinnacle as Vanderklis said, "You smell that? That's the smell of death."

The Superdome was never meant to shelter so many people for so long. It had been opened only one day before the storm by mayor Ray Nagin as a "refuge of last resort" -- a place where the people who didn't make it out of the city before the mandatory curfew could ride it out. The Dome had been used for such purposes before, but never for more than 40 hours, and it had never lost power or running water until this time.

If things weren't bad enough for the 14,000 people who arrived before the storm -- many prepared with at least some supplies and food -- they were worse for the thousands who arrived daily with nothing but the clothes on their backs after wading through the floodwaters or being airlifted off of rooftops.

Fear and anxiety -- along with that stench -- enveloped the place as the inhabitants of the Superdome essentially remained trapped for more than three full days before buses finally arrived on the afternoon of Sept. 1. No one, including the Superdome and National Guard officials who held it all together, knew when they would be rescued during a painfully slow government response.

The official death total was six, according to the National Guard -- one suspected suicide and five people with medical issues. No murders. There were no official reports of rapes or sexual assaults, though there was an account of a group beating a man and throwing him out for allegedly assaulting girls. There were fights and some people were detained in the Superdome's holding cell, including the man who attacked the National Guardsman. But the early reports of anarchy raging inside the Superdome were later debunked.

Nonetheless, a place that once stood as a symbol of New Orleans' strength had become a symbol of its despair.

Thornton grew up as a Saints fan, about five hours north in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was at the very first Saints game in Tulane Stadium in 1967. He still remembers his first Saints helmet.

He went on to become a pretty good quarterback at Woodlawn High School, where Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson once starred, before injuries cut short Thornton's playing days at McNeese State.

Now Thornton is in the Saints Hall of Fame, an honor he received earlier this year.

The Saints have enjoyed the best stretch in franchise history since they returned home to their rebuilt Dome in 2006 -- including their first Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season. The Saints have had 10 straight years of season-ticket sellouts after having none before the storm. And the franchise eventually signed a long-term lease with the state that runs through 2025.

It's not a stretch to suggest that none of that happens without Thornton -- that he helped save the Saints for New Orleans.

It was former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue who put his foot down when Saints owner Tom Benson was entertaining the possibility of a permanent relocation to San Antonio in the months after Katrina. Tagliabue made it clear that the league wasn't going to abandon one of its cities in its greatest time of need. He still says today that it would've been "the worst scar in the modern history of the National Football League."

But even Tagliabue recognized that the NFL couldn't make such a demand if the Saints didn't have a stadium to play in.

"I was clear from Day 1 when I went down there to Baton Rouge on Sept. 12, [2005], that they were not gonna be leaving as a result of Katrina -- comma, assuming we could rebuild the stadium," Tagliabue says.

"So that's where Doug became so critical. Because he was what came after the comma."

Thornton actually set the wheels in motion for one of sports' all-time great comeback stories before the NFL even got involved.

He was still in a state of shock after he evacuated the Dome by helicopter, seeing both the building in shambles and his own home under water as he flew out of the city. "I thought to myself, 'It's over, I'll never be back,'" Thornton confesses.

But he wasn't ready to give up. So less than a week after the storm made landfall, he got together with Superdome Commission chairman Tim Coulon and Superdome attorney Larry Roedel to discuss what it would take to revive the stadium. Thornton then placed a call to Kansas City-based architect Paul Griesemer, pulling him out of church on a Sunday morning and asking him to assemble a team of engineers and specialty consultants to assess the possibility.

Thornton says he got his "first glimmer of hope" when Griesemer said he thought the stadium could be reconstructed -- estimating it would take more than two years and $200 million. Thornton, Coulon and Roedel took the results of that assessment to then-Lousiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and were thrilled that she shared their vision that it could -- and should -- be done.

From that point on, Thornton became the man that both the NFL and the state leaned on most to accomplish the unthinkable - to get the Dome back up and running in time for the 2006 season, giving Benson no choice but to stay.

Thornton oversaw the massive project that included 37 subcontractors. He coordinated with state, federal and NFL officials to finance and fast-track a process that was unprecedented because of the scale and timetable.

"There were people that made the funding decisions," says James Carville, the famed political consultant and adopted New Orleanian, who said that list included people like Blanco and President George W. Bush. "But in terms of the guy who got it done, Doug is to rebuilding the Dome what [Gen. Dwight] Eisenhower was to D-Day.

"It wasn't Eisenhower and somebody else, it was Eisenhower. There are a lot of other people, but it was Doug. It was the energy, the contacts, the experience, everything."

Sean Payton, who first got to know Thornton after taking over as Saints coach during that 2006 recovery, calls him a "doer."

"He's just one of those guys, he looks at things and figures out how to get it done as opposed to reasons why we can't," Payton says.

Even Benson wound up leaning on Thornton, who will never forget the December phone call he received from the Saints owner, seeking assurances that the Dome could really be repaired.

"I know you've been talking to the league," Thornton recalls Benson saying. "Well, you realize that if you're wrong, they're gonna run you and me out of town. I can't be moving my team all over God's creation."

Thornton's response, he says, made both men share a laugh.

"I said, 'I don't have very far to fall,'" Thornton recalls. "'I'm already on the floor.'"

Blanco refers to the Dome as "she" -- as if it's a living thing.

"One that has such a grand story to tell," Blanco says. "It was hobbled, but it came back strong. And she's just been such an important part of New Orleans' iconic landscape that it's hard to think what it would be without having the Superdome there."

Although rebuilding the Dome seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, Blanco actually took a lot of heat for making it a top priority in those early months after the storm. But she agreed that the Dome could be a symbol of New Orleans' "renewal, recovery and strength." So she used her authority to fast-track the process once she was assured there would be enough funding from the money tied specifically to the Dome (insurance money, FEMA money and a $15 million grant from the NFL).

Blanco also was keenly aware of how vital the Superdome was to keeping the Saints. "I didn't want to lose them on my watch," she says.

Tagliabue felt the same way, as did former players union chief Gene Upshaw. The NFL even considered the unprecedented move of opening a headquarters in New Orleans. Instead, one of Tagliabue's top lieutenants -- current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell -- stayed in constant communication with Thornton, figuring out ways to make the building "game ready," even if some of the luxury items might have to wait a year.

Tagliabue also took the vital step of gathering a group of New Orleans business leaders to commit to buying suites and season tickets.

"I will tell you, after we opened that Dome back up and after that first amazing night, the apologies started rolling in," Blanco says, referring to those who had criticized her priorities. "It just had that energizing effect. There was so much elation and so much energy in the streets."

That energy was felt across the country in Washington, D.C., where Carville was watching on TV as the Dome reopened on Monday Night Football.

"It was the first time -- just when that opening shot of Monday Night Football came on -- where you said to yourself, 'Well, f--- it, we're gonna make it,'" Carville says.

"That was my feeling just sitting there after a little more than 55 weeks of just sheer angst and panic and worry. Just like somebody came out of the intensive care unit and said, 'Well, he turned the corner.'"

That night kicked off a series of exhilarating moments that Thornton also flashes back to during our tour of the Dome.

The electric atmosphere outside the building on that day leading up to the Saints' playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles later in that 2006 season.

Where he stood behind the bench on the west sideline when LSU beat Ohio State for the BCS title in January 2008.

When the Essence Festival returned and he went up on stage to watch 45,000 people singing and dancing as Frankie Beverly and Maze sang their classic "Joy and Pain" while closing out the show.

Joy and pain. How appropriate. Thornton has been feeling both during this long lead-up to the Katrina anniversary. During the big events and small events. During the quiet moments alone or with his wife, Denise, who was also in the Dome during those first four days after the storm and couldn't bear returning for a full year after it was rebuilt.

Thornton says he has mostly been reflecting on the sacrifice. Each morning this week, he has been driving past the 1,800 white flags that are raised every year in a cemetery near his home, in memory of those who lost their lives during Katrina. And he thinks of the tireless efforts of so many people who helped revive the Dome -- not to mention the entire city, including thousands of volunteers who came to help from across the globe.

Thornton says this 10th anniversary feels different than the first or the fifth, because the wounds were still fresh then and there were questions about how things would turn out. Now he says they can reflect with pride since the city is "back in play."

"I'll be thinking about those tough moments, those really difficult days where we worked well into the night, for 90, 100 days straight. A year basically of your life that you'll never get back, just struggling to survive and rebuild," Thornton says. "But then you reflect on the happiness that has occurred since then. Like that LSU game where you're sitting behind the bench and the band takes the field and it's so Louisiana and there's nothing like it.

"We recaptured what we lost. That's what we were fighting for."