The turf was gone, leaving the drab gray concrete floor exposed, except for one patch of green near what normally would have been the 50-yard line. There, barrels of liquid polyurethane rested alongside generators and a pump system with long tubes that ran up through an open panel in the roof. The afternoon sunlight tried to fight its way through the gap but quickly was swallowed by the dimness inside.
One goal post stood intact; the other lacked its bright yellow crossbar and uprights. There was trash in the stands, but no more than one might find in any stadium after a football game. The breeze of a crisp fall day blew in through an open loading dock behind one end zone. An American flag hung on the water-stained wall high above the opposite end zone. It was quiet, except for the humming of the equipment and the distant voices of repair workers.
The Superdome, site of so many Final Fours and Super Bowls, was a lonely place this week, the most visible symbol of the city's suffering during Hurricane Katrina having become a symbol of the struggles New Orleans now faces in its attempted rebirth. City and stadium face the same question: Can they be repaired well enough to convince their denizens to return?
The building's primary tenants, the New Orleans Saints, on Sunday will play their first NFL game in Louisiana since Katrina devastated this city. But they will play the Miami Dolphins about a 90-minute drive away in Baton Rouge, and many of the fans plan to vent their anger at the team's owner, Tom Benson, for his interest in possibly moving the franchise.
In the meantime, workers here will labor to patch together the Superdome.
"There's nothing that would make a bolder statement about New Orleans being back," Doug Thornton, one of the officials overseeing the repair work, said here this week, "than the Superdome being open for business."
The city is doing its best to rejuvenate itself. Along most major roads, dozens of cardboard signs on wooden stakes, some of them handwritten, are stuck in the ground to inform prospective customers which shops and restaurants have reopened. The area's long-suffering football fans would like nothing more than to see such a sign posted outside the Superdome next fall.
"People want things to hold onto, to remind them that there is still something here, a sense of community," said Steve Scalise, a Republican member of the Louisiana House of Representatives who is heavily involved in the city's rebuilding efforts. "People have grown up with the Saints for over 35 years. It's a part of what's unique about New Orleans. There are a lot of people that still need that release. Entertainment provides a release, and there's a lot of pressure and a lot of stress right now. I think it's important that people have some things where they can kind of take their mind away from it for a while, and the Saints provide that."
Thornton, a regional vice president for the Spectacor Management Group, the Philadelphia-based company that manages the Superdome, was inside the dome for five days after Katrina struck. He watched the water pour in and run down the walls after 70 percent of the roof was damaged by the storm, and he wondered if the building would survive.
"It's no different than your home," he said, sitting in an office in New Orleans Arena across the street from the dome. "It's just 1.8 million square feet. It's just a big building. And when that water penetrates into the interior spaces, it damages carpet, ceiling tile, electrical panels, wiring, elevators, escalators, scoreboards -- all those kinds of things that cost millions of dollars."
Thornton said he has no remaining doubt that the Superdome will survive, based on the preliminary reports of the experts hired to assess the damage.
"The building is very sound structurally," he said. "It's solid as a rock. It's just the interior spaces that need to be modified and dealt with. . . . When you have structural damage -- you know, serious structural damage -- then there would be talk about possibly replacing the dome. But we don't have that -- or at least at this point, based on what the experts are telling us, we don't have that."
Benson said in an open letter to Saints fans published this week that "the Superdome has suffered damage that may keep it offline indefinitely." The owner of another NFL team said the league still hears rumblings that the dome will have to be torn down. But Thornton said the repairs, estimated to cost between $125 million and $200 million, could be completed as soon as mid-October next year.
Tons of debris and garbage left behind by Katrina evacuees were hauled away. Workers should finish sealing the roof by spraying on the polyurethane foam next week, Thornton said. A final cleanup of the interior, including the removal of damaged carpeting and drywall and a thorough scrubbing of food-service areas, is slated to be completed late next month.
Thornton said he hopes to have a report by the end of November from Ellerbe Becket, the architectural firm hired to make a complete assessment of damage to the building and what it will cost for repairs. All or virtually all of the repair costs, Thornton said, should be covered by insurance money and federal funds.
Thornton said state officials must decide whether to make an additional $175 million in previously planned upgrades to the dome at the same time they make the repairs. The improvements could include adding seats to the lower bowl, widening concourses, moving up the press box and replacing it with luxury suites, and building two "French Corner" towers -- suites stacked in two corners of the stadium with French Quarter-style latticework for local flavor.
The state had proposed the upgrades in lease negotiations with the Saints and was going to pay for them through a hotel tax. According to Tim Coulon, the state's point man in negotiations with the Saints as the chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the team was receptive about a year ago to the proposal. But then Benson changed his mind, Coulon said, and maintained that the club could be competitive only with a new stadium. Benson pitched his proposal to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), and the state was formulating its formal response.
"Katrina responded for us," Coulon said, adding later, "Where we find ourselves now is, it is unlikely we would build a new stadium."
The upgrades to the Superdome remain a possibility, said Thornton, though he acknowledged: "The questions there become: Where's the money going to come from and how much time is it going to take?"
Coulon and Thornton said the plan is to repair the dome even if the Saints don't return. The dome was the site of about 115 events annually that didn't involve the Saints, Thornton said, including high school and college football games and a series of consumer shows each spring.
"It's been the anchor, along with the convention center, for our tourism industry and has been the catalyst for growth in the hotel market and the hospitality industry for many years, since 1975," Thornton said. "Our economy in this region is largely based and centered around tourism and convention activity, special-event activity. In that respect, the Superdome is a vital part of that economy. And the sooner we can get it back up and running, the more money it's going to generate for the city.
"Hopefully we'll be able to get a determination from the Saints and the NFL here in the next couple of months as to what the long-term vision is for the team in this market . . . but we have to take steps right now to repair that building, for obvious reasons. It's got to be put back in commerce, not just for the Saints but for other users that are so critical to the economy here."
Scalise said: "We've got to rebuild our infrastructure so that we can still generate revenue [and] we can still have jobs. There are a lot of people who, even if their houses were not destroyed by Katrina, they can't come back until they have jobs to come back to. So we have to maintain an economy in the New Orleans area. Some of our infrastructure, like the Superdome, needs to be restored. There was insurance, and FEMA has provided to pick up some of the costs of rebuilding. It's not like it's going to be taking away from our other resources. We're going to be rebuilding our port, too, because our port generates a lot of money. We can't just say, 'Let's ignore everything.' We've got to bring our economy back or else people aren't going to come back."
SOS: Save Our Saints
Jay Foster has been a Saints season ticket holder for six years. The attorney said it takes him precisely 69 minutes to drive from his home in St. Martin, Miss., to his parking spot at the Superdome. When the cell phone used by Saints wide receiver Joe Horn for a notorious touchdown celebration during a game in 2003 (Horn stashed the phone under the padding on a goal post, then pulled it out and pretended to make a call after a scoring catch) was made available in a charity auction, Foster bought it for $645.
He is helping to get a Web site, SaveOurSaints.com, fully operational and said he has rented a plane that will fly above Louisiana State's Tiger Stadium before Sunday's game carrying a banner with a message for NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. According to Foster, the banner will read: "Tagliabue, SOS: Save Our New Orleans Saints."
Foster said some Saints fans in the region will boycott Sunday's game because of their contempt for Benson. But that, in his view, is counterproductive. He will attend the game because he thinks a strong turnout will show the NFL that there is plenty of support for the Saints returning to New Orleans.
"You have some fans who are not going to go, just to show how they feel," Foster said in a telephone interview. "But I'm going. I'm going to give Mr. Benson the benefit of the doubt. . . . If Mr. Benson is a man of his word, he'll be back. . . . Unless somebody has a spare billion dollars sitting around, Mr. Benson is going to be our owner. So why alienate him any further? We want to show him and show the league that we want the Saints back."
Benson's open letter was published on Wednesday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Benson said he would like to return the franchise to New Orleans but cannot be certain that he will do so because of economic and stadium issues as the city recovers from Katrina. "No decision has been made about the future of the team," Benson's letter said, "because no decision has been made about the future of New Orleans."
There have been reports that Benson is interested in keeping the club in San Antonio, its current home. Three NFL sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations, said the league might allow the Saints to remain in San Antonio next season, with an eye toward a future move to Los Angeles, if New Orleans cannot rebuild and properly support the club.
The league would have to approve any relocation by a three-quarters vote of the owners, and the NFL clearly covets a return to Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest television market. But first, New Orleans gets to make its case. Blanco, Benson and Tagliabue are to participate in talks this weekend in Baton Rouge. Tagliabue was instrumental in making sure the Saints play more games this season in Baton Rouge (four) than in San Antonio (three).
Even before Katrina struck, Benson had said he would consider his options after the season. It appeared the Saints would have to repay the state $81 million in subsidies to escape their Superdome lease. But they could be freed from that obligation under a clause in the lease if the facility is deemed unusable.
The Saints have until Nov. 27 to exercise that clause, Coulon said. The state, according to Coulon, would contest such a move, contending it can fulfill its obligations by providing an alternate venue -- like Baton Rouge -- until the Superdome is ready.
The Saints already have taken steps to void their lease at their training facility in the New Orleans area, contending it was damaged when it was occupied by federal relief workers. Coulon said the facility does not appear to be significantly damaged.
Coulon said there's been no recent dialogue between the state and the team. Benson recently fired Arnold Fielkow, a Saints executive who had dealt extensively with the state and was a strong advocate of the club being fully committed to New Orleans. Coulon said a legal confrontation over the lease is possible, but avoidable, if the Saints amicably negotiate a deal to return to New Orleans.
"It can be worked out," said Coulon. "When you have people sitting around a table who want to work things out, it lends itself to reaching a consensus. We haven't had that chance yet."
But emotions are running high. Benson is a villain in New Orleans. A taped-up refrigerator with rotten contents was left on a sidewalk and spray-painted with the warning: "Do not open. Benson inside."
San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger drew the ire of many in the Gulf Coast by reportedly calling ticket sales for the Saints games in Baton Rouge a "disaster."
Said Foster: "At first I was angry. Then I was hurt. You spend your life with this team. I've been watching them since I was a kid. Then the mayor of San Antonio is calling us a disaster. When he called Baton Rouge a disaster, he called all of us in the Gulf South a disaster. And we don't appreciate it."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called Benson's flirtation with San Antonio disrespectful to the citizens of New Orleans. Benson fired back in his letter, saying: "Comments from our current mayor are made without a single phone call being placed to our team to check on our plans or to get the facts. If the Saints and Tom Benson were as important to the city as the mayor of our city has claimed in the recent past, why such harsh comments, when a simple phone call could have saved him from embarrassment[?]"
Scalise said he doesn't think the NFL will want to be viewed as allowing Benson to flee from the post-Katrina New Orleans. But eventually, he added, the ability of New Orleans to keep the Saints will, as with other businesses, depend on economic considerations.
"Maybe it's negotiating," he said of Benson's approach. "Maybe it's positioning. I don't want to get into the personalities. There are businesses that are making decisions to leave, and there are businesses that are trying to stay. We need to be doing everything we can to give people a reason to want to come back."
Staff writer Leonard Shapiro contributed to this report from Washington.