NEW ORLEANS — It’s not that anyone in New Orleans will ever forget Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing struggle that the country’s largest man-made disaster caused.
It’s just that locals would prefer to move on, to focus on the positive steps the city has taken in becoming one of the country’s great success stories.
As Super Bowl XLVII arrived this week, however, the city was hit with a new wave of Katrina stories –recollections of the event itself, survival tales and the recovery.
And Doug Thornton, vice president of stadiums and arenas for SMG and the man who runs the Superdome, believes that’s all right.
New Orleans’ 10th Super Bowl isn’t a story about Katrina. Rather, it’s a story about a city itself, one resilient in nature and proud, too.
“I just think it represents this 7 ½ years and to me this is the culmination of what we’ve been working for,” Thornton said. “It’s sort of that crowning achievement.”
For the nation to see how far the city has come, there has to be knowledge of where it came from.
The dark hours
If anyone understands the impact of this game, it’s Thornton.
It’s because he lived it as close as anyone, staying in the then-sponsor-free Superdome and watching as the situation deteriorated to the point where he needed armed guards outside of his office.
Truth be told, he wasn’t sure when he flew away on a helicopter on Sept. 1, 2005, the last SMG employee to leave the Dome, that he would ever return to a working facility.
“When I left here on that helicopter that day, I thought it was the last time I would ever be in the Dome,” Thornton said. “I didn’t think the Dome would be – I wasn’t sure that it could be rehabilitated.”
Thornton went on.
“When I left here, I had my doubts. I really did,” he said. “I wasn’t sure. I’d be lying to you if I said I knew we could rebuild. When I left, I told the handful of people that were here that last night we were here, I said, ‘Get a good look at it. You may not ever see it again. We may not ever be back.’ ”
For him, it was a hard hit to take. The Superdome was a building he cared for, a building he knew nearly every nook and cranny.
In many ways, the images of the Superdome – roof tattered, water pouring through it – is one of the handful of lasting images from the hours of and the days after the storm.
And those making key decisions about the recovery thought, in many ways, that the Superdome would provide the key symbol to recovery because of the images and the suffering that took place there.
But there were questions.
Would there be enough people in town to support events there?
Would the city return enough industry to keep the city going?
Would the schools reopen and would the hospitals be rebuilt?
“At least I felt that one of the things that would help stimulate that recovery would be putting a stake in the ground here,” Thornton said. “The minute people saw that roof being turned white again, they would begin to believe the recovery would occur. That was my belief, that it would inspire and if we could inspire and if we could complete it, it would stimulate the economy.”
Thornton wasn’t alone. He had a match in Baton Rouge in then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who believed the Saints’ returning would be a big piece of the puzzle to fixing the city.
Again, it wasn’t an easy task.
“They were working against great odds,” Blanco said. “Hard to get lots of building materials in. Hard to get a labor force. It was just hard on so many fronts and getting the business back up and the homes back up.”
A city in full recovery
Those moving around the French Quarter, the Warehouse District, Uptown and the Marigny and Bywater won’t see much left, if anything at all, from Katrina.
But the scars are still there. It’s always on people’s minds, especially during hurricane season.
“Go all around the city, you can see all the effects,” Super Bowl Host Committee chairman James Carville said. “You can still see.”
Yet, the city has undeniably moved beyond.
“I’ve been here for over five years now,” Carville said. “This is not the same city I’ve been to. I’ve been going to the Ninth Ward for five years and you can see the improvement. You’ve got to acknowledge there’s problems but you’ve got to acknowledge there’s improvement.”
Billions of Federal dollars have been spent in the region, improving levee systems and the infrastructure, allowing people to even dream of change.
Millions more have been spent on changing the school system, improving it by leaps and bounds. Millions are being poured into the health system, changing that dynamic in a city that has long struggled with it.
There has been an influx of young, educated people into the city. The city has become Hollywood South. The city is an entrepreneur’s paradise.
“There’s a whole new spirit in New Orleans and that spirit is driven by the millions of volunteers who came and helped us worldwide 7 ½ years ago and the years after that,” said Jay Cicero, president of the Host Committee. “It has just been an amazing turn around, a great attitude and a very can-do place now, which it may or may not have been like that before.”
Why this is a Katrina story
With all due respect to the BCS championship game and the NCAA men’s Final Four and the NBA All-Star Game, the Super Bowl is the biggest event this country sees on an annual basis.
And Sunday is the first time since Katrina that the city will be seen on a global scale.
“The story is much, much bigger than the Super Bowl,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “This is a story about the resurrection and redemption of a great American city. A short time ago this city was 15 feet under water and it was on the bottom of and last on every list that mattered.
“You have watched a people pick themselves up, dry themselves off and take it one step at a time to rebuild not only their lives, but rebuild a community and to do it in a way that we think is a model for the rest of the country. The Super bowl gives us an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
Far from keeping the story a secret or below the radar, Thornton, the SMG vice president, thinks it would have been hard not to tell the story, even 7 ½ years later.
Doing it through the angle of sports is just another avenue of the success of the city.
“Think about it – it wasn’t just the infrastructure,” Thornton said. “It was the market. It was the demographics. It was the people. There were questions whether the city would even be rebuilt and the people would be here to buy the tickets.
“I think it would be hard for the national and international press, many of whom may not have been here since Katrina for a major event like a Super Bowl, to come in here and not look back.“
Added Cicero, “You all know where we were. You can’t miss where we were. But look at where we are now and look at how far we’ve come. People may have left us for dead but now are absolutely amazed at where we are and that starts with the change of attitude and the resiliency of our people.”
Closing that chapter
If New Orleanians are looking to finally move beyond Katrina, this could be that chance.
“I think many of us that live it every day, it is in the rearview mirror,” Thornton said. “We’re looking ahead. There’s no question about that.”
Sunday’s Super Bowl is one of the final chapters in that book. There’s more to be written, but the heavy lifting is nearly done.
“I think in many respects this will be another big milestone for the city,” Thornton said. “(It’s) certainly a big milestone for the Superdome and its history. It will help us sort of close that Katrina chapter.”