Two Years After Katrina (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:03PM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:11PM
Do now: Sign in, indeed. You in? The federal government has been "in," all right -- indifferent and intransigent, almost criminally so. Much of the aid due the city is only just beginning to flow, while the engineering work and coastal management necessary to make New Orleans secure remain years and billions from completion. In the meantime local government has been "in" too -- incompetent and incorrigible by turns; the status of Lawless High is only one of many examples. Even the country at large seems to suffer from Katrina fatigue, moving smartly on while clinging to caricatured notions of what life in the city is like -- "Everything," says UNO athletic director Jim Miller, "from 'Gosh, shouldn't you be back to normal?' to 'You're still underwater, aren't you?'?"
All of which leaves the fate of New Orleans to New Orleanians. And so they transform themselves from huddled masses to huddle-uppers, rebuilding and repopulating their city one home, one block, one neighborhood at a time.
The "super" in Superdome is no accidental prefix. In good times the 32-year-old stadium, one of the largest domed structures in the world, has hosted six Super Bowls, four Final Fours, Muhammad Ali and the Pope. In bad, it has served as the city's refuge of last resort, shelter from the storm for the indigent and infirm. As Katrina bore down on the Dome, and nursing homes dropped off patients with notes pinned to their clothing, the spectrum of humanity housed there ranged from gangbangers to tourists to those who would parade around the concourses singing This Little Light of Mine.
Soon after Katrina made landfall early on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, winds of 127-mph blew two smoke-relief vents off the Superdome roof. Metal decking began to flap against steel trusses above the heads of terrified evacuees huddled in the lower bowl of seats. Soon a 60-foot gash had opened, and debris began to shower the field below: steel bolts, light fixtures, ceiling tiles, even a lightning rod, each an implement of death if it were to hit someone after a fall of 270 feet.
Doug Thornton watched all this with as much emotional freight as anyone. He is regional vice president of SMG, the Philadelphia-based venue-management company that operates the Superdome, and this is his building. Doug and his wife, Denise, had holed up there to ride out hurricanes before, though never with so many others. He and Lt. Col. Doug Mouton of the National Guard used a bullhorn and all their persuasive wiles to move evacuees out of danger without touching off panic.
As water cascaded down interior walls and stairwells, and wind further peeled back the roof, no one in the Dome knew that, all over the city, levees had begun to fail. Only on Tuesday morning did officials inside the Dome finally start piecing together the truth. Watching the water rise on Poydras Street, right outside the stadium, Thornton felt his heart seize up. When the power to downtown had failed on Monday, the Dome's emergency generator had kicked on, providing enough electricity for dim light. But if the generator were compromised by floodwaters, the arena would be plunged into darkness, causing panic, anarchy and death far greater than the six fatalities that would officially be recorded. Thornton raced to the boiler room to find water lapping against the door. Only a quick sandbagging operation saved the generator.