Miraculous Recovery – The Louisiana Superdome reopens and the
Saints march triumphantly home

Miraculous Recovery – The Louisiana Superdome
reopens and the Saints march triumphantly home
Author: David Wilkening
Date: August 1, 2006

After the unprecedented devastation of Hurricane
Katrina, who would have expected a storm-damaged New Orleans Arena
re-opening in 187 days and an even harder-hit Superdome to be
completed early for September?s start of the National Football
League season? ?We can?t find anywhere a case of a building that
was rebuilt and renovated to the extent of the Superdome in such a
relatively short period of time,? said Glenn Menard, general
manager of both the Superdome and the Arena. ?This entire job is
unprecedented. Never before in the history of American stadiums has
a $185 million restoration job been completed in nine months. We
can?t find any cases. Can you?? added Doug Thornton, regional vice
president for SMG, which operates the building. Thornton attributes
a lot of ?sheer will and determination? as factors in the
rebuilding. But there were also several ?milestones,? as he calls
them. The first question 16 consultants had to answer soon after
the hurricane was whether the dome could be saved. ?We determined
something could be restored. The building was structurally sound
but needed to be gutted. Then the work could begin,? Thornton said.
But who would pay for it? A critical element was that insurance was
not going to cover the entire loss. ?So FEMA stepped in to assist
us with uninsured losses. That sounds very simple but FEMA is a
federal agency, and it took us two to three months to go through
all the rigid guidelines,? Thornton said. Thornton essentially
wrote a recovery plan for the dome under difficult conditions. ?No
one was living here. We were back to working with day passes or
military passes that allowed us in and out of the city,? he said.
Following the damage assessment to determine what needed to be
fixed, Thornton faced the issue of how to pay for it. A total of
$40 million for improvements and $25 million for operations was
created when the building?s $195 million of outstanding bonds were
re-financed. That also sounds simple. But every other area hard-hit
by the hurricanes had its bond ratings fall. ?So we had to convince
the rating agencies that we needed to restore our bonds to
investment grade to refinance our debt. That was no simple victory.
That was probably the hardest part of the job,? Thornton said. The
state legislature and governor helped with the financing by
agreeing to a 90-10, federal and state government split. The NFL,
anxious to get the Saints playing again, also kicked in up to $20
million (The final amount is still being determined). But another
key element involved the nature of government-owned structures. ?We
had to fast track this job for it to be completed by September. We
couldn?t take the traditional path for construction methodology and
tell the architects to draw up what we want, then draw up plans and
put them out to bids. That takes months,? Thornton said. Thornton
and the small staff left in New Orleans for SMG decided they had to
have a design-build program. ?But in the state of Louisiana that?s
unprecedented. You can?t do it. So we got an executive order from
the governor to do what?s called construction-manager-at-risk or
CMAR, which is basically design-build,? he said. That meant a
project manager, the New Orleans-based Broadmoor LLC, was quickly
chosen to oversee the work. ?What it also allowed us to do was
basically set aside the 30-day requirements of public notice and
other procurement codes,? Thornton said. ?That was absolutely
critical because we had 75 bid packages. If we had to go advertise
and go through all the procurement process, we would never finish.?
Thornton said the SMG staff (which had been reduced from 186 to
only 32 for budgetary reasons because no money was being generated)
had to make decisions not on a monthly or weekly or even daily
basis, but ?every hour.? ?The construction manager had a trailer
right next to us and we had to make decisions constantly about bid
packages and change orders. What people often don?t know is that
this was not your typical construction project,? he said. Apart
from those problems, Thornton said other issues kept coming up. The
huge 9.7-acre roof was two-thirds destroyed, mainly because of
water damage. Broadmoor was not responsible for the roof, so bids
went out. Only one bidder came forward, Brazos Urethane of Baton
Rouge, La., and was accepted. ?The roof was critical because we
decided in early January we had to get it up before March 1st when
the peak hurricane season begins,? Thornton said. ?There was a lot
of pressure to do it very quickly.? At one time, management
considered opening the dome for the football season without a roof.
?But if there was a temporary storm, much less a hurricane, the
roof might have failed. So we could have ended up doing all those
repairs and having water damage for a second time,? Thornton said.
The roof, which was completed at the end of July, well ahead of
schedule, involved replacing the entire surface or 60,000 square
feet of steel deck, piece by piece. The new roof has three layers
including 500,000 square feet of fluted metal decking, 500,000
gallons of polyurethane foam and 20,000 gallons of urethane
coating. ?The bottom line was that no one, not even the contractor,
knew whether this would all work. We held our breath and went
ahead,? Thornton said. New problems kept cropping up, Thornton
recalled. The building had 42 escalators, for example, most of
which had to be replaced or repaired. How could the parts be
ordered in time? And what about labor? ?We kept hearing there was a
shortage of labor and a shortage of materials,? Thornton recalled.
But there was no problem finding workers. ?Broadmoor came in and
did a great job getting sub-contractors to perform in various
areas. For the sheetrock, for example, they had three different dry
wall companies come in for one job or another,? Thornton said.
There were up to 850 workers at peak times. If all this sounds
smooth, Thornton said that was not the case. ?I had many, many dark
days when I went home at night thinking we could never make it,? he
said. Perhaps the best example was the day he thought all 72,000
water-damaged seats in the Superdome would have to be replaced. ?I
thought, there?s no way we can order, get them manufactured and
installed. So we went back to the drawing boards,? he recalled.
Consultants found a way to tent the entire dome and blew hot air
under the seats for two months. The existing seats were restored.
The Superdome, after a $185 million renovation, is now on schedule
to re-open Sept. 25 when the New Orleans Saints play the Atlanta
Falcons on Monday Night Football on ESPN. All eight of the Saints
regular season games are set for the Dome. As for 2006-07 football
tickets: ?We broke our all-time record for sales this year,? said
Michael Stanfield, vice president of ticket and suite sales for the
New Orleans Saints. The team sold almost 55,000 season tickets for
the refurbished Superdome. That surpassed the 2003 franchise record
of 53,728 season tickets. The ticket sales are a particularly
striking accomplishment because Saints owner Tom Benson has long
been rumored to want out of his contract with the city to keep the
team in New Orleans through 2010. ?Mr. Benson has said he will
honor his contract with the state of Louisiana which runs through
2010,? Stanfield said. ?A lot of this goes back to the ownership.
He (the owner) made this a rallying point for everyone in the
community.? Another key was to reduce prices to perhaps the lowest
in the NFL. Season ticket holders have purchased tickets to all
eight home games for as little as $112. That was more than
one-third off many tickets prices. ?We also have 25,000 seats for
$30 or less,? Stanfield said. Stanfield and his staff of 25 people
sold ?99 percent? of the season tickets through telephone
marketing. Wanting to offer flexibility, the Saints expanded their
season ticket options from nine to 17. The lowest price tickets are
generally located in the upper deck in the end zone. The most
expensive season tickets for $1,400 offer club level sideline
seats. Signing some highly regarded personnel also boosted ticket
sales. They included a new coach, Sean Payton, and a potential star
quarterback, Drew Brees. ?We also got lucky in the draft,?
Stanfield said, which led to the Saints eventually signing 2005
Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. Ticket sales spiked after the
April 29 draft windfall. ?Another thing we did was to put a virtual
reality view of the Superdome on the Internet,? Stanfield said.
That allowed ticket-buyers to see where their seats are located.
Saints? ticket buyers in September will find a functioning stadium
with only a few finishing touches left to do such as cabinetry and
carpeting in the suites, Menard said. Thornton said, however, that
this does not mean he can sit down and idly watch the game. ?We
won?t be out of the woods until Sept. 25th at 8 p.m. ? no, I mean
at 11 p.m. after the final horn sounds and the final fan leaves the
building,? he said.

Interviewed for this story: Doug Thornton, (504)
587-3892; Michael Stanfield, (504) 731-1700; Glenn Menard, (504)