This is where his life changed, a year ago. To his left, that's where he finally parked the church van by the concrete posts, starting his family's odyssey at the Dome. Right over there, that's where he walked outside and wept, a strong man, a preacher, who just couldn't take any more pain. He couldn't bear to see his mama and daddy suffer another second, couldn't listen to another frantic call into the radio station. Now they make it day to day, one foot in the future, the other in the past.
Like the rest of their city, and the tens of thousands of ordinary people with them inside the Superdome during Katrina, they're taking stock of their lives, looking for signs that things can be like they were before. Maybe, someday, this building can mean something different to them. That's what the people working night and day on the Dome are hoping for.
"When people come in here and see what's been done in less than a year's time," says Doug Thornton, general manager of the building and the driving force behind its revival, "they are going to say, 'If the Superdome can be rebuilt after that tremendous destruction, my house can be rebuilt, my neighborhood can be rebuilt and my city can be rebuilt.' So much of this recovery is about confidence and belief. You've got to want it to happen. You've got to believe it. This is symbolism."
Jennifer ZdonBilly Zacharie calls on the Lord, asking for protection. It's hurricane season in New Orleans.
Zacharie wants to believe. The history of his family is linked forever with the stadium, intertwined, their collapse and rebirth mirroring its collapse and rebirth. His wife hasn't been closer than the nearby streets since an Army truck took her away. When she and Billy drive by now, they look at it, then they glance at each other, and say, "That didn't happen."
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"If this was a different time, especially this time of the year, we'd be all for the Saints," he says, "but you have to put all that stuff on hold and get your emotions together, your life together, the city back together. They're using the Superdome as a landmark, if you will, a: 'We're prospering again; there's hope; we're being revived.'"
He sighs. "It will never be what it once was," he says.
Zacharie puts the truck into drive. He looks up at three shades of gray clouds, an anvil sitting above his city. There's another hurricane out there somewhere. "The sky is looking familiar," he says. "It's staying with me for the rest of my life."
He makes a U-turn, pointing toward his home in New Orleans East. He'll do a little more work on it tonight. It's getting there. At least he's back. His family's scattered. So is his congregation. Everyone in New Orleans has a personal Superdome to rebuild. As hard hats rush in and out, Billy Zacharie heads off to his.
Into the belly of the beast
Jennifer ZdonBilly and Pamela Zacharie had never spent a night apart in almost a decade of marriage until they were put on different buses and evacuated from the Dome. Their love has gotten them through the most difficult year. Billy Zacharie leaned over the steering wheel of his church van. It was about 2 p.m. that Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005. The sky was black. His brother and sister and niece looked out the windows, waiting nervously. His wife and 84-year-old mother prayed. His 82-year-old father moaned on a mattress in the back of the van.
Billy tried to figure out how to get them into the Dome. They'd been to the front and back two times. His father was too sick to stand in line with everyone else, and, if the military nurse was to be believed, too sick to come inside. That nurse, whose job it was to evaluate the "special needs people" being dropped off, had been the worst. She'd come to the back of the van, and coolly assessed the condition of Billy's father, James, a veteran who fought in World War II before she was born.
"He can't come in here," she told them.
"But he's special needs," Billy said. "You told us to come here. Please let us in."
"I'm sorry," she barked. "Get them away from here."
"What are we gonna do?" he pleaded. "The storm is coming."
Billy parked outside the loading dock, trying to figure out their next move as the rain began. They needed to be inside. Inside, that's where safety was. That's where Thornton and Dr. Kevin Stephens, head of the city's department of health, and the National Guard brass were working double-time to be ready before Katrina hit. They knew what it took to turn a football stadium into a shelter of last resort.
Thornton had been regional general manager of SMG, the facility management group that runs the Superdome, for years. He knew every nook and cranny. Usually, you'd find him in high-thread-count shirts, a tie that hung perfectly over the tip of his belt buckle, creased slacks that broke just so. A soft-spoken but insistent man with trademark bushy eyebrows, he had the respect of the state's power brokers. His wife had come with him to ride out the storm in his office.
Jennifer ZdonDoug Thornton believes that restoring the Superdome is a powerful step, a way for a damaged city to hold its shoulders back and be proud.
Stephens and his staff had prepared the afternoon before in his City Hall office a few blocks away. On his dry erase board, they'd written, "WAR ROOM," and drawn a timeline, figuring out when to start triaging patients, when to start giving treatment. The storm, they calculated, was 446 miles away then. By Sunday, it was even closer.
A makeshift hospital had been set up. Supplies arrived by the semitrailer full, into the loading dock. There were lots of anonymous heroes. Catholic Charities had emptied their entire warehouse into the Dome. A man had driven from Texas, dropped off a trailer of oxygen, then hightailed it back.
The worrying had begun, too. Thornton told the National Guard engineers that they only had enough fuel to run the generator until noon on Tuesday, and that the diesel tank was underground. Rapidly rising water could send the Dome into total darkness and anarchy.
Still, it was better than the alternative, so people lined up, four and five blocks worth, standing in the rain.
"Everyone recognized this was a bad storm," Billy Zacharie says. "Meteorologists, I heard a young man on the TV. He was relatively new to the city. He was frantic, man: 'Get out, this is gonna be a bad one, worse than Betsy.' "
APThe lines stretched blocks, as frantic citizens pushed toward the entrances. The storm was coming, and they needed shelter.
The stubborn, the poor and the homeless swarmed around the Dome. So did those with family members too sick to evacuate, like the Zacharies. Billy's brother, Michael, also a pastor, had gotten out of town, after futilely trying to persuade their father to go to a hospital in Baton Rouge, La. Billy stayed behind with Mama and Daddy, and now he was sitting in his van, his broad shoulders slumped a bit.
He saw a nursing home van unloading, and a line of wheelchairs going inside. He got two wheelchairs, eased his mom into one, his bedridden father into the other. Dad growled in pain but took it. They put a sheet over his lifeless legs, rendered impotent by a stroke a decade before, and wheeled their father inside.
Pretending to be with the nursing home patients, Billy snuck his family into the Dome. Right by the tunnel to the field, near the loading dock where they'd been parked, he set them up behind boxes of food and bottled water.
"Every minute was full of anxiety," he says. "I've never said this to my wife, but there were times when I was really getting scared. When I saw the wind coming, it started raining hard. We had just got in the Dome, and the water started getting higher."
The family tried to stay out of sight. He didn't want to get thrown out. One of the soldiers, who'd been with the nurse when she denied them entry, peered around the corner and made eye contact with Billy. The soldier recognized him. This was the moment of truth. Outside the wind roared. The storm was just 12 hours from shore. Waves pounded the South Louisiana coastland, strong enough to swamp monitoring stations in the Gulf. The hurricane refused even to be measured.
The soldier looked at the Zacharies, and he nodded. For the moment, they were safe.
Time stands still It has been a year, though it's hard to tell. New Orleans East, a suburban neighborhood claimed from the swamp as the city made its rapid and arrogant post-World War II expansion, still looks like a war zone. The city's population sits at 1880 levels. The wind blew away a century of progress along with all those houses. Garbage trucks rumble up and down Gawain Street, past the leaning and missing road signs, carrying away the remnants. They'll be doing that for years.
Jennifer ZdonLike most in New Orleans, the Zacharies are living in a strange before and after world. There are two realities: how it was and how it is.
The auto shop is deserted, the grass grown high. Some people have fixed their houses. Some have gutted them down to the studs. Others never came back. Entire blocks of families left town, lifelong neighbors never to speak to one another again. Cupboards still full of food, red beans waiting for a wash day that will never come.
Down the road a piece, past the wrecked trees on a corner, Billy Zacharie is trying to get his life back. He stands at the front door and looks out at his world. The "Home-is-where-the-heart-is" welcome mat lies near his feet. He's dressed for company, and the sun shines off his bald head. There's a white FEMA trailer parked in his front yard. They didn't deliver the keys, so it sits, useless. They're making do. His church has even found a temporary home in his garage, complete with pulpit and pews.
The Zacharies still can't wash the orange spray paint off the bricks, the sign that their house was checked for bodies and toxic chemicals. Where Billy and Pamela sit now was covered in 2 feet of water. They were lucky his parents' home got 8 feet, his brother Michael's church in the Lower Ninth Ward got 20.
Jennifer ZdonThe prayers go up. It's a scary time, especially for the children, who don't know if the city of their parents will be there for them.
Billy and his wife hold hands in the living room. He recounts their ordeal. He can't stop reliving it. He'll stop a complete stranger and tell it, like the Ancient Mariner in the Coleridge poem.
"It's hard to forget," he says. "It's hard. We play it over and over again."
A year later, the horror of Katrina comes to them in fractured pieces, more of a kaleidoscope than a photo album. Little things remind them. His wife can't eat bologna; it's what they had in the Dome. He's got a small portable television in the truck; it's like the one they carried into the special needs ballroom, sweating through two nights, using the glow of the screen to find swamped-out bathrooms. The television had a radio, too, and they spent long hours listening to frantic calls from people drowning in their attics and washed off their rooftops. Numbers once dialed to argue about the Saints or the Tigers were dialed in desperation.
"I can hear people calling for help," he says. "'The water is rising. It's coming up to the ceiling. Please, I need help.' The poor announcer, all he could say is, 'We're hoping the National Guard is coming. Just hold on.' As they're talking, they were cut off. They were gone. Someone else would call, 'Please come get me, I'm on Piety Street. The water's about 8 feet high and rising.' I'm like, is this really happening?"
APThe hurricane pounced. Winds hurled things through the air. Water rose. People had to get to safety now!
Billy lifts himself out of the chair, goes into the bedroom and gets the faded wristband. It's the one they gave him to move that Tuesday from the Dome across Girod Street to the adjacent New Orleans Arena, where the special needs people might be more comfortable. That's where they were Wednesday when it was their turn to be evacuated. Two-by-two, the Guard told them.
The Zacharies were forced to split up.
Billy went with an elderly friend who was blind. Pamela with the blind man's wife. Brother Ronald went with Daddy. Sister Claudia went with Mama.
The water rose all around them, making the Dome and nearby New Orleans Arena an island. Billy and his elderly friend wound up on a bus headed to Houston. He won't ever forget the faces staring at them as the bus rolled by. Some were cheering. Others glared.
Jennifer Zdon (left), AP (right)It's been a year and those frantic days still remain fresh in the minds of the Zacharies. They'll never forget.
He'd been separated from his mother, father, brother, sister and wife. He prayed for Pamela. In almost 10 years of marriage, it was the first night they'd spent apart. The bus rolled down the interstate, and he just looked out the window, wondering whether his family would ever be whole again.
Ronald also rode toward Houston. He was low. He'd stood there when the guardsmen loaded his father onto a helicopter. They wouldn't let Ronald go with him. Not enough room. He'd stared skyward as the chopper carried their father away, without any of the four medicines he took daily, without identification. The family had no idea where he was going. A year later, Ronald is still haunted by that moment. He's in Houston now; his sister thinks he's "using something." He has been in a mental hospital. He keeps his mother's wheelchair in his modest apartment. He can't let go. None of them can. A family broke apart that Wednesday.
Remembering, Billy sits on a chair in his living room, and his voice trembles. The sun's gone down, darkness settling over New Orleans East. His wife leans over to comfort him. In his hand is a piece of paper he'd held when he began talking. Now, it's bent and wrenched, folded into something the size of a watch face. Behind him, the wall still needs work. Maybe tomorrow.
A Dome teetering on the brink of extinction On Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina passed over the Dome. The creaking let the tired and frightened masses know something was wrong. The crowd looked up as the wind tore big pieces of the roof away, letting torrents of water flow into the building. Thornton went to sleep that night knowing his building was in trouble, but he imagined the worst was behind them.
He was wrong.
Jennifer Zdon (left, bottom right), AP (top right)Scenes from the Dome: People cram into seats, trying to remain calm. A year later, Thornton goes through the engineering room, pointing to the marks made on the wall, charting the rising water.
At 5:30 Tuesday morning, he saw Lt. Col. Doug Mouton, head of the Louisiana Army National Guard 225th Engineer Group, coming toward him in the hallway.
"Have you been outside?" Mouton asked.
"No," Thornton replied.
"You better go look," Mouton said. "There's 6 feet of water in Poydras Street."
Thornton immediately thought of the tenuous hold they had on power.
"Oh, my God," he said. "The generator."
He ran down the stairs, as fast as he could, into the engineering plant. There was water on the floor already, and it was rising. Two major problems presented themselves, both potentially catastrophic getting fuel into the generator that was supplying power for several essential systems and keeping the generator above water. Mouton and Thornton made a pact that no one outside their inner circle would know about either. They couldn't risk the panic.
National Guard engineers backed a diesel fueling truck up to the building, but the nozzle made to fit vehicles would not go in the generator. They cut the nozzle off and attached the hose to the generator. It was a risky strategy. As this improvised system was tested, Thornton looked at the engineer.
"Is this gonna work?" he asked.
"Hell if I know," the man said. "We've got no choice. I think it will."
They attached the hose and waited. Those few moments seemed like hours.
Getty Images (top, bottom right) and AP (bottom left)Their place of refuge became a horror as water and heat threatened everyone's safety in the Dome.
Everyone breathed again when the fuel flowed. But what to do about the water? Mouton sent two Black Hawk helicopters to pick up sandbags. It took about 200 bags, plus reams of plastic sheets, to create a dam around the generator, like a big bathtub.
Tuesday night, Eddie Compass, New Orleans' police superintendent, came in and told them to expect 8 more feet of water. Eight feet? They had only 10 inches to go before water flowed over the sandbags and shut down the generator. Compass told them to get out, hugged Thornton and left.
Mouton put a tape measure against the sandbags. He and Thornton would get updates from soldiers they had down there, doing nothing but watching the water rise and hoping. It rose 1 inch. Then it rose another. Miraculously, it stopped, with just 8 inches to go. The lights were spared.
Even with that catastrophe averted, the situation was dire. The crowd grew menacing on the floor. One soldier fired his assault rifle into the air to scatter the youths. There were rumors of rape, though no rapes were ever actually reported. However, one man tried to sexually assault a girl. The crowd administered vigilante justice, beating the would-be rapist within an inch of his life and throwing him over a barricade.
APA great American city, flooded, abandoned. Those who flew over what was once New Orleans were often left speechless, their words lost in the water.
Another man jumped from a catwalk and killed himself, two elderly women witnessing him face plant on the concrete. A military chaplain counseled them. People broke into every locked space; in the months to come, the cleanup crews would find shards of bloody glass everywhere. At least four elderly patients died because they were unable to withstand the heat. Their bodies were put into a catering freezer. Chaos ruled. Even the normally impeccably dressed Thornton armed himself.
"I remember he had a gun in his back pocket," Mouton says. "We were all packing heat. It was like being in the Wild, Wild West."
In the midst of so much suffering, and with the most awful smell you can imagine filling the 2 million square feet of the Dome, small moments of humanity emerged. Kids found time to play. Before evacuating, Billy Zacharie and his family, along with thousands of others, sat in the seats as young men and women divided into teams. "I don't know where they got all those footballs," he says. "They had a bunch of people on the field, and they had a bunch of footballs. I said, 'Praise God.' That eased the tension."
On Thursday, buses finally arrived. People began to evacuate, more than 1,000 an hour. By Friday, most of the people had left for Houston. The big building was battered. More than half of it was severely damaged, waterlogged. Mold set in. No one knew if the 140-mph winds had compromised the structure's integrity.
Finally, it was time for Thornton to leave. People had died inside the building he loved, and the roof had giant holes in it. A private helicopter landed to take him to Baton Rouge. He'd hardly slept in two days. They took off, and out by the 17th Street Canal, where he lived, he saw that his house was flooded. He looked back toward downtown. His heart sank.
"I could see this beaten and battered Superdome," he says, "with the black roof with the rubber strips hanging off of it and the water glistening all the way back from the 17th Street Canal to the Dome. And I couldn't help but think, 'This could be the end. This could be the end of the Dome.'"
What it means to miss New Orleans The Thursday lunch crowd at Mother's lines up at the counter, people yelling their orders above the din. It's open again. Billy and Pamela Zacharie love coming down here to the Poydras Street restaurant, halfway between the Superdome and the Convention Center. This week, they're celebrating how far they've come. It was a year ago to the day that Tropical Depression 12 became Hurricane Katrina.
Pamela orders a fried shrimp po-boy.
"We couldn't find one in Houston," she says. "They don't make po-boys. They might give you some white bread, but it's not a po-boy. They can't give you hot sausage. They don't have pig lips."
A lot of things were strange in Houston. Driving took forever. They got lost. Wal-Mart didn't sell Blue Runner red beans. Not that the family had time to worry about those things. The first order of business was locating Daddy.
When the helicopter had taken off, leaving Ronald on the ground at the Superdome, James Zacharie had vanished into the ether. Only no one but Ronald knew until the family reconvened at the Astrodome. Billy saw Ronald there, without their dad. Billy slammed a piece of pizza down on the stadium's floor. People in the adjacent cots turned to look. The man closest backed away.
"You lost him?" Billy screamed. "We've got to find Daddy!"
Courtesy of the Zacharie familyJames and Carrie Zacharie were married for six decades. They made it through the depression, through two world wars, through countless other conflicts, through the Jim Crow south.
When his mother found out, she ran away, her family chasing. She had to get to a phone. When they caught up, she was talking to the Red Cross. Carrie Zacharie was shaking from nerves and diabetes. Billy tried to take the phone from her and calm her down.
"Wait, Billy," she snapped in her Mama voice. "Leave me alone. Ronald lost James."
They got her to an aunt's house. For two weeks, they called hospitals. They called morgues. They called every place in Louisiana they could think of. No one could find James Zacharie. It was too much for Carrie. They'd been married for six decades.
"She'd lost her James," Pamela says.
Billy wrote all the numbers in big letters for her old eyes, and he'd leave her by a telephone.
"My mama was up nearly round the clock," Billy says. "She called them all night. She'd doze off and wake up and start calling some more. She called and called and called."
Almost three weeks later, they finally got the news they'd been praying for. James was in a hospital in Monroe, La. The family celebrated, then got an ambulance to bring him to Houston. When they saw him, James cracked on Ronald: "They said you were too ugly to ride on the helicopter." That's when the Zacharies could go on with living.
But everything was hard. Mama and Daddy's health suffered. Pamela's hair fell out from stress. They tried, though. Billy got a job. It wasn't the shirt-and-tie job he held in New Orleans. No, he worked manual labor. The first time he came home, covered in grime, wearing steel-toed boots, Pamela snuck into the bathroom and broke down. But they faked it. His son from an earlier relationship, who is in Dallas with his mother, wrote a poem entitled "Don't Look Back."
"We kept convincing ourselves, no way," Billy says. "We were trying to convince ourselves we weren't going back."
At one of the corner tables at Mother's, they're snapped back to the present by a loud voice screaming, "Pamela." Their food is ready. Billy's unusually quiet as he digs into his seafood platter. He's thinking of his parents.
Billy looks up. He swallows hard.
"My mom wanted to come home so bad," he says. "They took pride in their house."
Jennifer ZdonThis is St. Rock Cemetery, and it's where the Zacharies have to go now to visit their parents. The storm changed everything.
On Nov. 5, worn down by more stress than an old woman should have to bear, Carrie Zacharie had a heart attack. Her James was right by her side, watching over her until the paramedics arrived. She slipped into a coma and slowly deteriorated. Finally, after months of decline, Billy couldn't look at her anymore. He went to say goodbye to his mama and never saw her again.
James sensed his own sunset was coming. About a week before he died, he got Billy to pray with him. He'd never done that before. On Jan. 13, he passed. Nine days later, Carrie followed him. Her funeral program quoted 2 Timothy 4:7: "I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith." They were buried together in St. Rock Cemetery in New Orleans.
Four months later, Billy and Pamela planned to drive over for Mother's Day, to put flowers on his parents' graves. Bad weather kept them from traveling. The next morning, Pamela woke up crying. She looked at Billy.
"I want to go home," she said.
Saving a tough old bird
Jennifer ZdonDoug Thornton has been fixing and renovating the Dome at the same time. They've got sections of new seats, waiting for the plastic to be removed. New Orleans was a ghost town on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005, the ragged Superdome the world's visual metaphor for the scope of the destruction. No one knew whether the building could be saved. Thornton wasted no time finding out.
Two days after he left on a helicopter, he called Paul Griesemer, an architect at the stadium-specialist design firm Ellerbe Becket. It was Sunday morning. Griesemer was in church in suburban Kansas City. His phone vibrated. He looked down, saw it was Thornton and silently hurried down the aisle to a curb in the parking lot. He doesn't take many calls in church. He took this one.
Thornton asked him to come down and see whether they could save the Superdome. There was hope. After the attacks of Sept. 11, the government had done terror mock-ups on the place. An Oklahoma City-sized bomb could go off on the event level and the Dome could take it. It was a tough old bird.
Like everyone else in New Orleans, the Saints, the state and the city had to decide whether it was worth it to come home. Thornton believed it was.
The first time the architects and stadium officials walked through, in hazmat suits with respirators, the scope of the operation overwhelmed them. The environment was toxic. Ten acres of roof needed replacement. Half the Sheetrock. Thirty percent of the ceiling tiles. Ninety-five percent of the carpeting. Beyond that, there were the more important structural questions. The Superdome is actually 10 smaller buildings an inch and a half apart. The spaces are called expansion joints, and if extreme lateral force had moved any of them, the entire building was toast.
The engineers spent a week assessing the damage, and when the report came back, the Dome had new life. She had weathered the storm. The planning began. The NFL wanted the building to be open for the Saints' first home game in September, a little more than a year after the storm. In early November, Thornton called Griesemer and asked whether it would be possible. Griesemer told him they could do it, if everything worked perfectly. If they were rolling by Dec. 15, they had a chance.
Jennifer ZdonIt's almost game time. Workers are putting the finishing touches on right now.
On Dec. 7, Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed Executive Order 95, allowing the state to fast-track all the bids, everything that had to do with getting the Dome online when the national television cameras rolled.
A few months later, after the toxic soup had been double-bagged and disposed of, contractors and subcontractors were ready to go. Early on, the key players gathered in a conference room at New Orleans Arena. Sitting there was project executive Roy Mouledous, who'd lost his own home in the storm. A soft-spoken, heavyset contractor, he has construction in his blood. Three generations worth. Mouledous' grandfather had built local landmark One Shell Center, and his father had built what's now the J.W. Marriott Hotel on Canal Street. Like the men who came before him, he'd rather watch something rise from the street than do a lot of talking.
So he surprised everyone, most of all himself, when he found himself opening his mouth after Saints owner Tom Benson had rattled on about the importance of getting the Superdome done in time. This wasn't just a job. It was personal.
"You're gonna play football September 25," Mouledous promised.
Honor thy father and thy mother
Jennifer ZdonBilly and Michael Zacharie can only shake their head at the waterline, and at the collection of timber that once was a home. Billy Zacharie stretches the tape measure over the front of his parents' home. Eighty-four inches to entomb. With nails in his mouth, he begins hammering up the plywood. The family members have been dreading this the day they board up James and Carrie's house. It's necessary, though. They've heard the city has threatened to condemn all unoccupied houses without the windows boarded up, and the kids are trying to sell the property. So Billy covers the windows and, now, the front door. Sweat rolls down his bald head, the midmorning sun already brutal.
"It's just horrible," he says. "It's almost like the memory of my mother and father, I'm closing them in there."
He works hard and carefully. Last night, he measured out the pieces, labeling each one in pencil. This is his final gift to his parents, and he wants to do this thing well. As he hammers, the memories come back. That's where his mother used to sit, waiting on the government check to come on the third of every month. That's where he used to party, pulling his speakers outside under the carport.
"Before we were preachers," brother Michael cracks, standing nearby.
Jennifer ZdonBoarding up his parents' home hurts Billy Zacharie. It feels like he's burying them again.
Billy hammers. Slowly, taking each nail out of his mouth. Down by his feet, Michael has carefully arranged stray bricks into a little garden. They try to treat it like Mama would have treated it. That's all they can do. Michael is working a lawn mower, cutting the neighbors' grass. They never came home after the storm. Probably never will. They had always kept the place immaculate.
"Last I heard, she was having surgery in Baton Rouge," Michael says. "I just wish I knew where she's at. That was the nicest old lady. I'm just honored to do this for them."
Billy's almost finished with the front of the house. He holds the final piece up with his belly, tapping the board in place. Two nails to go.
"I thought my mother and father would live forever," Billy says to himself.
One more nail. He thinks of watching his father hammer as a little boy. He used to go visit him at the upholstery business. The final nail goes in.
"A lot of people respected him," he says.
Over by the side of the house, closing up the side door, he's stopped cold. There, in what once was the carport, mixed in with the toxic mud, are small pieces of his parents' lives. Six decades together, and this is what's left: his mama's church hat, battered and forgotten. A high heel shoe. A belt. A work boot. A few medicine bottles. Faded pictures of happier times. He makes believe he is ignoring them, trying to mitigate the pain. The neighbor's house has moved into their lot; he tries to ignore that, too. A car next door has "RIP Max" painted on it. A pet.
Jennifer ZdonHis father's tie. His mother's church hat. All over the city, families look at the pieces of a former life.
Two Army helicopters fly overhead, breaking the silence.
"Probably headed to the Dome," Michael says.
Finally, Billy's done. He loads up his tools, looks back and heads to his truck. Just one more afternoon of trying to move on with the past punching you in the gut. Michael gives his brother a hug.
"You did a beautiful job," Michael says. "Mama and Daddy would be proud."
Billy nods. "I could hear her, 'Take care of the house,'" he says. "Can't you hear her? 'Take care of the house. Don't just leave it any old way.'"
Heartfelt signs of the times The first of September loomed. Mouledous looked up from his desk at a giant blueprint of the Dome. Almost exactly a month to go. He kept a Saints schedule on his wall in the on site construction trailer, and, on the dry erase board, a countdown of days. In the Dome, workers and managers moved double-time. In case they forgot, a giant banner hung on the side of the building: Reopening 9-25-2006."
APThe roofers finished early, and the no-hurricane flag was to ward off any further storms.
Signs had become important around town. They denoted progress. Down on Carrollton, at the Camellia Grill, where generations of New Orleanians munched 1 a.m. burgers, the neon was dark, the paint cracked and peeling. People started writing messages on Post-it notes. It was their way of talking directly to a wounded city.
"Please come back," one read. "Please come home," said another. "I had my first date here. We got married," another said. They covered the front of the building. Down in the Garden District, the old-line restaurant Commander's Palace worked to reopen. Emeril got his start here. So did many of the great New Orleans chefs. A sign was there, too: "We know what it means."
A restaurant reopening matters. A football stadium matters. Just ask the workers at the Dome. This isn't just a paycheck. The roofers who called themselves the Krewe of Roof finished 45 days early. The city celebrated when the last piece was installed. Roofers don't ever finish early.
"I bought season tickets," said Mouledous, one of a record number to do so. "It's the first time I've had season tickets other than the first year. You want to be a part of something coming back."
Architect Griesemer, an outsider, has seen it. When locals find out why he's here, they treat him like royalty. The hotel staff gives him care packages. People bake him cookies.
"Every time I pull in, the car valet wants an update: How's my seat?" he says. "The hotel manager is e-mailing me: Are the suites gonna be ready?"
The work hasn't been easy. Before the roof was finished, each rain brought panic. Mouledous spent hours watching the radar and hopped on the road at 3 a.m. to see if water was leaking. Any damage would have set them back, killed their chances of making the deadline. Griesemer, most likely in Levis and a denim shirt, sat in almost every seat, did a report on the damage to every room in the place, about 2 million square feet. The contractors dealt with FEMA, which helped pay for the repairs. Every dollar had to be justified; they have trailers filled with paperwork.
Only the little things remained to make the building football ready. That was the key phrase. Some things would take another year to complete the suites, the ballrooms, the high-end amenities. Come Sept. 25, the city of New Orleans would have the Saints again. As the deadline approached, Thornton walked the floor. The scoreboards had just been installed, and Elvis played over the new PA system. It was 357 days since Thornton had looked down at this same building from a helicopter. Jennifer ZdonThornton hopes that the new shiny Superdome can be a symbol of the city's recovery.
"People of New Orleans have had so much taken away from them," he said.
He couldn't finish, turning away, wiping his eyes. He laughed at himself.
"Excuse me one minute," he said. "I'm sorry I got choked up. I haven't done that. That's the first time. I've got to get stronger."
Around him, workers finished this labor of love. The rest of the city might be set back 100 years, but Thornton and his crew had done what many thought impossible. Like the Zacharies, they were back home.
"This is not just a rebuilding of a stadium," Griesemer says. "This is the image of rebuilding this city. This community. And people just want this to be successful beyond belief. Everyone from our construction manager to the guy who is just laying down the epoxy floor, everybody wants it to be so perfect on September 25, when the world comes to New Orleans' door. They want people to think that we are gonna fight to bring this town back."
Back home, together but alone
Jennifer ZdonBilly and Pamela Zacharie thank God every day that they didn't lose more in the storm. So much is gone, but they still have each other. The sky turns black again. A crowd gathers outside Gate C of the Superdome, Plaza Level. Billy and Pamela Zacharie are among them. It's their first time back to this place. Pamela has been looking forward to and dreading this day for a year. It's the Hands Around the Dome event, a way for those whose lives where changed to commune with other survivors.
They both keep their eyes fixed on the building. He shakes his head. Her first tear forms in the corner of her left eye. It rolls down her face. Others follow. She puts her arm around his back. He reaches over and holds her hand. There are hundreds of people around, but they appear totally alone, with only each other.
"We didn't know how we was gonna make it," he says.
The building brings back different memories for each of the men and women here. For Pamela Zacharie, it's of last breaths. She can't shake the image of a sheet pulled over a human being in the bowels of a football stadium.
Soon, the dark skies open. Hurricane Ernesto is out at sea, tracking them. The wind picks up, driving the water sideways through the tent. People huddle together. The Zacharies decide to make a run for it, splashing over the same ground they'd trod a year ago. Across the bridge, down the stairs, into the parking garage. Back in their truck, neither of them says much. Pamela stares out at her city. Six inches of water cover the streets around the Dome.
Raindrops hit the roof of the truck, collecting on the windshield, adding to the ones that fell before, the water rising. It pours off the interstate in fire-hose-sized streams. The truck rolls past a cemetery, which is next to a makeshift village of FEMA trailers. Billy Zacharie is quiet. He's quiet because he's remembering.
"One year later, darling," he says.
"And there's a hurricane," she says.
The Zacharies turn to each other in the front seat. They're thinking the same thing. That didn't happen. In the rearview mirror, the Superdome dominates the skyline. It gets smaller and smaller until it can't be seen at all.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.