Superdome in sorry shape after emergency role

Updated: September 7, 2005, 9:00 PM ET
Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Superdome became a symbol of relief efforts gone wrong, a scene of heartbreaking misery for thousands.

But no decision has been made about the future of the iconic city structure, and the manager of the domed stadium expects it will take more than two months to get a damage assessment and determine whether the Superdome should be repaired or razed.

Police nightmare
Toni Blanco and Alecia Wright lived with those who sought refuge from Katrina in the Superdome.

They went back Tuesday to take a look -- the massive building dark, eerily empty and reeking of human waste. Personal effects were scattered everywhere, and the field was littered with debris. Two rays of light poked through the holes that were blown in the dome that allowed rain to pour in.

"The pictures or the television can't show the stench, the smell of urine and water mixed on the floors, the feces," Blanco said. "It was unimaginably horrible."

Blanco is deputy commander of the New Orleans Police Department's sexual crimes unit. She's been on the force since 1981. Wright is one of the unit's detectives.

Nothing prepared them for five days in the dome when they and about four dozen other officers were supposed to keep order. On the first night, a man threw himself to his death. There were rumors of sexual assaults, but the police could barely keep order much less investigate.

"You felt helpless in the sense there was absolutely nothing we could do for the city," Blanco said. "I'd just tell people that we just have to have hope in the Lord."

Blanco walked up a darkened escalator, trying to avoid dried vomit, to the luxury suites. She and other officers commandeered one the first night, but it flooded and they had to leave.

Saints owner Tom Benson's suite had been filled with bottles of top shelf liquor, ornamental iron and fine furniture.

"We were told we had to stay out of this suite," Blanco said.

Someone had been in there, though. The liquor was mostly gone, cabinets rifled through and the toilet overflowing.

-- The Associated Press

The last storm victims stuck at the Superdome climbed aboard evacuation buses Saturday, leaving millions of dollars of damage behind -- a flooded field, overflowing bathrooms, a sea of garbage up to 5 feet deep and a wretched stench.

Three large holes marred the roof. In all, about 70 percent of the roof failed. Water poured into the building during the storm, along with debris.

Elevators, escalators and ceiling tiles were damaged. Two inches of water were on the field in some places, and the entire surface on which the New Orleans Saints play their football games must be removed.

There's damage to seats, bathrooms and other interior areas from the thousands of evacuees who were stranded in the building.

The damage is certainly severe but Doug Thornton, a regional vice president for the company that manages the Superdome, said it will take about two months to do a full assessment -- and only after an estimated two weeks of cleanup and hazardous waste removal.

"It's very early at this point to speculate about the future of the Dome and whether it can be repaired," Thornton said.

The Superdome was used as a shelter of last resort for those who couldn't scramble out of town ahead of Hurricane Katrina, but it wasn't equipped with supplies for those stuck there. Buses took days to arrive and finally move people out.

The neighboring New Orleans Arena, which housed up to 800 special medical needs patients before they were evacuated, sustained some water damage mainly in the locker room and media area and wind damage to the exterior of the building and the outside video board. Thornton said it's possible the arena, home to the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, could be repaired within six months.

Thornton estimated repairs to the building would be a minimum $100 million, but demolition and construction of a new stadium could cost between $500 million and $600 million.

Finances aren't the only considerations though. There are psychological ones, too, Thornton said.

Many likely will remember the Superdome as a haven for misery and despair, but the building is a 30-year-old icon to many New Orleanians that could be the symbol of recovery from Katrina, he said.

"There are a lot of good memories in the Dome: Final Fours, papal visits. There was a president nominated there," he said. "Certainly, there are a lot of bad memories, but there are good memories too."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press