September 26, 2006
It's not often I see grown men cry. In my experience, it's rare. But I saw it Monday night, standing on the Saints sideline inside the Superdome, as I congratulated one of the supervisors on the rebirth of the huge structure.
He'd put his heart and soul into the project, giving up the last year of his life to see it through, he told me. Repairing the cratered roof, ripping out the wet and mildewed walls, ceilings, carpets, and furniture, rewiring, replacing, and redecorating a facility he considered his living room and his whole life.
And now, with 72,000 Saints fans cheering wildly, after Green Day and U2 rocked the stage with songs about the city, including a rewritten "Beautiful Day," tears began to fall from his eyes.
"I've cried a lot tonight," he told me, as others came up to shake his hand and give him a hug. His labor of love was alive and healthy and already giving joy to the people who needed something to cheer about.
It was a powerful moment. We spoke for another minute, standing together on the sideline, as the crowd continued to roar. He wiped the tears from his eyes, but he missed a spot, and it glistened on his left cheek. I clapped him on the shoulder as we said goodbye, with the stadium alive and kicking around us.
Pro-football is back in New Orleans. It's just one step forward for a city with many struggles, but it's a big step, and at least 72,000 people are fired up about it. Actually, 72,002.
September 25, 2006
When the New Orleans Superdome opened in 1975, it was the world's largest domed stadium, bringing great pride and a huge economic boost to the city.
There were Super Bowls and NCAA tournaments, a Papal visit and a Republican Convention, concerts and trade shows, and Saints football games on Sunday afternoons. It was perhaps the most recognizable and defining symbol of the "Crescent City" (along with Bourbon Street, of course).
When Hurricane Katrina ripped a hole in the dome, the stadium almost died.
Seventy percent of the roof was damaged. 3.8 million gallons of rainwater poured in, ruining seats, furniture, carpeting, drywall, ceiling tiles, lighting fixtures, speakers, and mechanical systems.
There was talk of tearing the building down, and the Saints owner was rumored to be considering moving the team to San Antonio.
Instead, the governor signed an executive order authorizing funds to rebuild the stadium. The NFL and the Saints agreed to stay, and work began in January to restore this iconic structure.
Nine months and $185 million later, the Superdome is super again. All 72,000 seats have been cleaned or replaced. The 440,000 square-foot roof is new, with half a million gallons of polyurethane foam sprayed on top. There is 750,000 square feet of new sheetrock, 800,000 square feet of new ceiling tile, and a sparkling new 60,000-square-foot artificial turf field on the floor. Some of the suites are missing carpet, cabinets, and permanent seats (they'll be installed later), but no one seems to mind.
The Saints sold out every one of the 68,000 season tickets available for the first time in the club's history, and the city is excited about the huge economical upside.
There's a spiritual upside as well. Doug Thornton, who supervised the restoration project, calls it inspirational.
"If the state can rebuild its largest asset, a 2-million-square-foot facility that was so heavily damaged, in that short period of time, then there's going to be hope for my neighborhood. So much of this recovery is based on that confidence. If you believe it will happen, you can make it happen."
There are a lot of believers here today.
"I'm sure this is great for the city of New Orleans, but I was at the Superdome about six years ago before Katrina. The place was run down, filthy, and in need of repairs in restrooms, seats, and turf. You name it — it was a shambles. It had not been maintained at all, it seemed. Then, Katrina hit. Now, it's all new great and wonderful. Well to me, it is easy to figure out why. The taxpayers of the U.S. are footing most of the bill, with FEMA spending $115 million to renovate the place, something the city or the state didn't or wouldn't do. I will probably never set foot back in the Superdome, so why should my tax dollar pay for something the city and state wouldn't do for themselves for years?" — Glenn
"$150 million of the $185 million was FEMA money. What a great use of federal emergency funds. I am glad that my taxes went to fund a sports facility in another city." — Michael
"As a concerned citizen from VA who has made several trips since Katrina to help rebuild that area, I'm glad to see that life is being restored once again after the hardships that people have gone through. I am appalled, however, that the governor approved $185 million to rebuild a stadium when there are homeless and hungry people that still need help. It's nice that there is that much support for a home team. But where are our priorities when people would rather go to a football game than use the money for something better, like human rights?" — Andrew
"As a first responder, I appreciate all what you do as a fair and balanced journalist. I was on the sideline with my fellow brothers and sisters hailing the spirit of the Saints and fans. I was hoping to express my appreciation as I passed you near the goal, but was rushed along to our area seating section!" — Justin
"I, along with many others, am very happy to see the Superdome reopen and Saints football return to New Orleans. " — Steve (Chicago, IL)
"The Superdome is fixed, but the rest of the city isn't. Could this be something to do with the gagging amount of money that is behind pro sports today? I wish we were the kind of society that thought that regular people were just as important." — Kathie
"The state of Louisiana authorized $185 million in funds to rebuild the football stadium. I am curious about the state of the schools, hospitals, and clean living spaces. Any numbers on those?" — Sonja
"I was so excited to see you reporting from the Superdome. I'm trilled that the Saints are home and that the people of New Orleans have that little bit of normalcy back. Also, Drew Brees has been doing wonders for my fantasy team this year." — Sarah (Atlanta, GA)