In once-squalid Superdome, sweet smell of success
NEW ORLEANS — If desperation has a smell, it permeated the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina — rancid and overpowering as thousands sweltered in a cauldron of human misery.
The stench was so wretched that it still haunts the people preparing the dome for one of its biggest games — the New Orleans Saints' first home conference championship game Sunday against Minnesota, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
"I would gag, man. It would just gag you — a smell you'll never forget," said Doug Thornton, who has run the Superdome since the late 1990s. "Perspiration, human feces, urine, mold, wet ceiling tiles, wet carpet."
The smell grew ever more potent as roughly 30,000 storm victims were stranded in the dome without power or plumbing, while temperatures outside rose to 95 degrees in the days after the hurricane on Aug. 29, 2005.
Katrina's winds peeled away the dome's 9.6-acre roof like the outer layer of an onion. Whether the stadium could, or even should, be saved was a matter of sensitive debate for months.
How could New Orleans justify spending hundreds of millions on a football stadium when hospitals and schools were in ruin• And even if the dome were rebuilt, could the Saints make it in a devastated city that was already a small market?
Even Thornton, now celebrated as the visionary behind the nine-month renovation that allowed the Saints to return only one season later, had his doubts. He remembers flying away from the Superdome in a helicopter, finally grasping the enormity of the disaster.
"It looked like Armageddon," he said. "And I thought, 'It's over. I'll never be back here. This is the last time I'll see it,' and I just cried all the way to Baton Rouge. I felt so depressed. It was an ugly sight and an awful feeling."
When the dome was finally evacuated, huge holes had been ripped in the roof. Smaller ones had been punched through drywall by evacuees who broke into luxury suites and scavenged for food and water. Mounds of trash rose in corridors, infested with flies.
The storm and humanitarian crisis left in ruins a structure that had hosted so many memorable events — six Super Bowls, so many Sugar Bowls, "Pistol" Pete Maravich's magical days with the New Orleans Jazz.
It was the place where boxer Roberto Duran told Sugar Ray Leonard "No mas" in 1980, where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass, where George H.W. Bush gave his "thousand points of light" speech.
On Sunday, it will add one more to the list — the most important game in the history of the Saints.
New Orleans will face a Vikings team led by Brett Favre, who as a Green Bay Packer won his only Super Bowl at the Superdome in 1997.
Favre, who was raised in nearby Kiln, Miss., says he, too, saw the apocalyptic images on TV after the storm and wondered whether the place he remembered so fondly was finished.
"I questioned it. It crossed my mind," Favre recalled. "I had an interest in what was going on down there because the house that I grew up in was also destroyed. I knew when I finally had a chance to go down to my mom's house, I could only imagine. What you see on TV sometimes doesn't do things justice. It was pretty bad."
The Saints set up temporarily in San Antonio, not sure what their future held. Leaders there made no secret they wanted to keep the Saints. Backers of bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles saw an opportunity.
Thornton knew the only hope of keeping the Saints in New Orleans was saving the Superdome. Building a new stadium could take four years, and the state didn't have the money. Because the dome was state-owned and vital to the New Orleans tourism industry, it qualified for federal aid for repairs.
"The minute we turn that roof white again, people are going to believe in this recovery," Thornton remembers telling then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
The more than $200 million renovation included refurbished suites, club lounges and premium seats, and $85 million more in upgrades are scheduled before the city hosts the Super Bowl again in 2013.
It's still not the Rolls Royce of stadiums, but today it's permeated by the familiar smells of hot dogs, fried chicken and beer spilled by exuberant fans. Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he understand the Superdome's appeal as an instantly identifiable landmark of New Orleans.
"It's definitely a symbol of the city and one that, had things gone differently and it was no longer here, no longer occupied, that would be a travesty," he said. "But obviously, coming that close to losing something like that maybe makes you appreciate it more."
In 2006, after the dome had been gutted, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and commissioner-in-waiting Roger Goodell toured the stadium with Thornton, who said he hoped they could finish it in time for college football's title game at the end of the 2007 season.
Tagliabue and Goodell, unsure what to do about the Saints in 2006, called back with a challenge: Get the stadium ready for football in nine months and the Saints will play all eight home games there.
Thornton thought it was impossible — besides the roof, there were 20,000 seats to replace, plus walls, carpeting, furniture, fixtures, wiring, and scoreboards. Architects at first expressed disbelief, then decided it could work if they focused only on what was necessary for football, saving the luxuries for later.
The Saints sold out the dome throughout 2006 — as they have every season since — and went to the franchise's only other NFC championship game, which they lost in Chicago.
Had the naysayers won the day and the dome been razed, the Saints might be elsewhere.
"It's hardened us a little bit," Brees said. "It's given us an edge, but certainly in the end I think it's made us tougher. It's brought us together. It's united us, and that's all for the better."
The Saints have won more games this year — 14, including their playoff win last week — than ever before. At their suburban training headquarters, players have worn T-shirts bearing inspirational slogans. One of them reads: "Smell Greatness."