Published September 16, 2004
NEW ORLEANS – The Louisiana Superdome's (search) high-priced sporting events, glitzy shows and top-dollar concerts are not part of Matty Howard's world. But on Wednesday, the 31-year-old homeless mother of three, who'd never stepped inside the massive stadium, saw it as her last hope.
"I usually stay by the Salvation Army (search), but they aren't taking anyone now," said Howard while heavy wind buffeted the stroller where her 18-month-old twins slept and her 4-year-old daughter tugged at her shirt. "If they don't let me in here, how can I keep my kids safe?"
City officials, who originally restricted the Superdome to people with special medical needs, opened it Wednesday afternoon to the general public -- those with nowhere else to feel safe as Hurricane Ivan (search) swept by.
"It's primarily for senior citizens and those with small children," Mayor Ray Nagin said. He promised no one would be turned away and organized city buses to bring evacuees from pickup points.
By nightfall, 1,100 took refuge in the dome and were served spaghetti and meatballs, though they'd been told not to expect to be fed. Big cheers greeted news they would get blankets -- inside temperatures were in the 60s -- and word that television sets would be turned on.
There were also 300 National Guardsmen to prevent the kind of misadventure that marred the last time the 72,000-seat dome was opened as a shelter. In 1998, when Hurricane Georges aimed at New Orleans, about 14,000 people stayed inside, but there were numerous problems.
"While this building certainly can accommodate a large crowd for a four-hour event, we're not equipped to handle 30,000 or 40,000 people for three or four days," said Superdome general manager Doug Thornton.
In 1998, people showed up with insufficient or no food, and complained when the Dome served them hot dogs and orange juice. When kept from leaving after the storm because of a curfew, shouting matches erupted with security and police. Some occupants hauled off televisions and furniture.
"I'd say 99 percent of the people were fine," Thornton said. "But we didn't have enough security people to handle the crowd and prevent problems."
The Superdome can withstand most catastrophes; the roof is built to stand up to 200 mph wind and even deep flood water wouldn't reach the second level 35 feet from the ground.
There are potential problems nonetheless. Although the building has its own generators, they would not provide lights or air conditioning for the entire area if electricity went out. Nor would pumps providing water to second-level bathrooms function.
Just as during Georges, the Dome has only a small work crew for Ivan, which means providing security and services gets even harder, Thornton said.
"The office of Emergency Preparedness and the city decided that the Dome would not be operated as a shelter," he said. "That means we are not equipped as one."
The city previously provided shelters for those unable to leave when storms threaten. Now, the Red Cross will not set up shelters for a storm larger than a Category 2, saying New Orleans -- much of which is below sea level -- is not safe in bigger storms. Because of that, the city concentrates on evacuation first.
From a planning standpoint, Nagin said he did not regret keeping the Superdome from use until the last minute. "As far as an empathy standpoint," he conceded, "we could have moved a little quicker."