By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
9:28 PM EST, January 29, 2013
NEW ORLEANS —
Bathed in colorful lights and swathed in banners, including one featuring Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, the Superdome seems to have been polished to a fine sheen for Sunday's Super Bowl.
But underneath the festive atmosphere linger the ghosts of Katrina.
"It happens to me all the time, sometimes late at night or when I'm here alone," said Doug Thornton, who manages the Superdome. "I'll walk by one place and I'll remember an image of a person. And it will haunt me."
Super Bowl XLVII will bring happy hordes of fans, celebrities and VIPs to the domed stadium that for one misery-filled week in 2005 was the refuge of last resort for some 30,000 residents seeking shelter from Hurricane Katrina. The storm, which struck Aug. 29, blew a hole in the Superdome's roof and wiped out electricity, plumbing and seemingly all manner of civilized life for the evacuees, who sweltered in increasingly fetid conditions.
Seven years later, memories of what Katrina wrought hover over New Orleans, even as hosting the Super Bowl represents the city's continuing recovery. That the game is being played in the Superdome serves as a reminder for many here of the city's devastation and its resilience.
"The Superdome symbolizes New Orleans, period," said Police Sgt. Rhett Charles, a lifelong resident.
Charles, who will work a security detail Sunday at the Superdome, was assigned there during the week of Katrina. As he roams the sparklingly renovated arena, he remembers the desperation of the storm evacuees, trapped in the stifling building that lost power in 90-plus degree weather.
"Even now, I can see people in these seats, trying to sleep, trying to hold their families together, trying to answer their kids' questions," he said.
And Charles can still hear the sound of the roof giving way to the storm.
"That sound of the roof flapping and water coming in," he said. "We were awakened by that sound. We thought the roof was coming off. We went to the 50-yard line and just looked at it, raining inside the dome."
But the lowest point came when Charles heard a group of people screaming and he and other officers ran toward the commotion. A man had thrown himself off a walkway onto the concrete below.
"He just said, 'I can't take it anymore,'" Charles recalled.
The man later died of his injuries — news reports say it was believed that he had learned that his house had been destroyed, prompting him to jump. Another person died of a drug overdose, and four died of natural causes. But many initial reports of rampant rapes and other crimes turned out to have been largely overstated, officials say.
Still, the experience of Katrina, especially for those who took shelter in the Superdome, left a powerful and complicated legacy.
"I'm not much of a sports fan, although we all love the Saints," said Susanna S. Powers, a Tulane University research librarian, referring to the city's pro football team. She wrote a moving essay about spending that week in the Superdome for her blog, angels and people, life in New Orleans. "After having had that experience, I said I'll never go back to it."
And she hasn't returned to the stadium, though she is thrilled that it has been renovated and is playing host to major events.
"I'm completely happy it's having its moment in the sun now," she said. "It was built for that purpose."
Always a party town, New Orleans seems even more giddy as it continues a weeks-long Mardi Gras celebration — with a Super Bowl on top of that. To some, such as Troy Landry, who stars in the History Channel reality show "Swamp People," this is what a strong people do: come back after being knocked down.
"People here bounce back. It's a way of life here, we have so many natural disasters," Landry said. "Katrina hit the city hard, and they've rebuilt. The city is nicer than it ever was."
There are neighborhoods in some of the most devastated areas, such as the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, where new construction has replaced some of the devastation, even as blighted properties remain.
One such development, Columbia Parc, replaced St. Bernard public housing with a mixed-income neighborhood.
"There used to be shooting and killing, people used to be on drugs," said retiree Sandra Heard, sitting on her porch reading and listening to the radio Tuesday. "Now they screen you. If you have a criminal record, you can't come in here."
Heard, who had a pot of red beans going on the stove, was thrilled to have the Super Bowl in town.
"We were so excited. The streets are all nice, and they're fixing everything up," she said. "The only thing better would be if the Saints were in it."
Still, she can't help but wish that more money could be diverted to residents.
"They focused on the Superdome and not the poor people," she said. "We have too many homeless people. The Superdome brings money into town, but we never see it."
The $366 million renovation of the Superdome has had its detractors, said Thornton, senior vice president of SMG, the stadium's management company. One was his wife, who started a grass-roots nonprofit to help residents rebuild damaged homes, using her experience with their flooded house.
"She would rail on me, 'How can the state put emphasis on a stadium when Lakeview, when the Ninth Ward need so much help?'" Thornton recalled. "Everything was in chaos in the city. Roads, bridges, schools were needed. Why on earth would we give priority to a football stadium?"
For Thornton, a leader in the fight to renovate rather than raze the Superdome after Katrina, there were two answers: symbolism and economics.
"We felt if we could turn the image of the Superdome around, it would inspire confidence that rebuilding could take place," he said. "And we know New Orleans is a tourism-based economy, and sports and entertainment are a big component of the hospitality industry. Without the Superdome, without the Saints, that goes away."
The costs were borne by state and federal funds, as well as money from the National Football League and stadium authority bonds, he said. The Superdome reopened with a Saints game in 2006, bringing cheer to the wounded city, and the stadium was soon back to hosting major sports and entertainment events — just as it had since opening in 1975. According to the Super Bowl host committee, major sporting events held in New Orleans since Katrina have had an economic impact of more than the $1 billion.
Still, the pride is tinged with melancholy.
"The dome saved thousands of lives, but 30,000 people lived for four or five days without running water or electricity. We were trapped in here," Thornton said. "They were bringing people in here from rooftops. It would scar our city for a long time."
When he left the Superdome by helicopter after everyone had been evacuated, Thornton took one long, hard look at the stadium, thinking it would be his last.
"I saw it in the distance, I saw the water glistening and smoke billowing from some fire in the background and I thought, 'This is it.' It was devastating," he said. "I was pretty emotional about it. Would we be able to recover? Could the city recover?"
That New Orleans is hosting this year's Super Bowl is one answer. The world's most watched sporting event will put the post-Katrina city in the spotlight as never before, Thornton said, and he's eager for the platform to showcase the new New Orleans.
"We really have a good story to tell. It's not about the dome, it's about what the dome represents — the hard work, the determination and the creativity of New Orleans," he said. "Out of disaster sometimes comes opportunity. This is an opportunity for New Orleans to reinvent ourselves."
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