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08.28.10

The Haunted Symbol of New Orleans

Five years after the Superdome became synonymous with the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, Nicole LaPorte takes a look at the refurbished arena.

Some New Orleans residents still get the chills when driving past.

Gloria Guy, for example, still shudders when she sees the Superdome’s iconic shape. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the 70-year-old woman vividly remembers seeking help there, after more than nine hours waiting to be rescued from the roof of her house in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Sitting in her new home, built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, surrounded by nieces, grandchildren, and daughters, her face darkens when she recalls what she experienced at the sports arena at the height of the storm.

“I’ll never go through that door. I don’t want never to go through that no more.”

“I saw one man, he got tired, and he went over to the banister and he jumped off and killed himself,” she says. “The sisters were makin’ love to the guards. And they had stealing and they had alcohol and they had drugs.”

She will drive past, but not stop.

“I’ll never go through that door. I don’t want never to go through that no more.”

More than 20,000 people sought shelter at the Superdome, and the cameras caught it all: towering garbage piles, putrid waste, tens of thousands of hungry, half-clothed people awaiting evacuation. There were reports, some later debunked, of rapes, murders, and suicides inside the bubble.

To television viewers elsewhere in the country, the Superdome became synonymous with the hurricane and the chaos it wrought, seared on the national consciousness like a psychic wound.

Five years later, however, there are no traces of the horrors that took place inside its curved walls.

A $220 million renovation is close to being complete. The New Orleans Saints just played their season opener on a pasture of brand-new, emerald-green playing turf. Outside the enormous, bulbous structure, a digital billboard announces that Lady Gaga is coming soon—tough competition for any lingering ghosts.

Using FEMA and National Football League money, the city made rebuilding the downtown arena a priority in the aftermath of Katrina, using funds that some critics said would have been better spent on hospitals and schools.

“The Dome,” as it’s known locally, is home to the city’s beloved football team, and some feared that if it wasn’t fixed fast enough, the Saints would leave—further wounding a city that had just gone through the trauma of the storm.

Photographer Mario Tama Documents the Tragedy and Resurgent Optimism of New OrleansFive years later, the extent to which New Orleans officials have worked to clear the building of negative associations is evident.  On a tour of the dome, which has a new shiny bronze “skin,” general manager Alan Freeman points out the new clubhouse, which looks like a hip nightclub with low, modern sofas and a sleek bar. The press box has been renovated. And there are new, and more, seats. (By the end of the renovation in October, the Dome will seat 71,000, up from 68,000.)

The only evidence of the misery of not so long ago is a shrine-cum-gallery in a corner, showing photographs of the disaster. But even these photos have been airbrushed. Freeman points out an image of two young children playing happily as a ray of sunlight shines down from one of the holes in the roof.

The narrative he wants to tell has a happy ending. When the building first reopened in 2006, he says, “It was very emotional. You just knew these people had been through a lot. People in the building were crying.”

It’s the narrative of New Orleans—a tale of challenge and redemption.

The Saints, a team known better for losing than winning, this year won the Super Bowl, giving a much-needed psychic boost to the city, and Mardi Gras celebrations had nothing on the victory parades. Suddenly, the Superdome was a monument to victory, not despair.

“I won’t say it was something we needed to have happen to justify what we were doing,” Freeman says, but adds it “underscored the fact that the city was back and the team was back.”

The waiting list for Saints season tickets number more than 30,000 people—quite the departure from the years when the team played in a half-empty arena and fans described themselves as “The Ain’ts,” marking their shame with bags over their heads.

There is still something haunting about the space. Freeman points upward to a set of windows that have been installed way up high. “The building never had any windows,” he says, “so people couldn’t see the outside world once they were inside.”

It’s a gray, stormy day, but a bit of sunshine is peeking through the glass. For a moment, the shadows are gone, replaced by a soft, warm light that seems to be saying: Never again.

Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.