Season Six Episode 4

Cursed and Blessed According to local legend, the Louisiana Superdome was always a haunted place. First plagued by construction problems, then years of bad luck for the host Saints team — by 2005 those Saints were prepared to abandon the stadium in favor of a dreaded move to San Antonio. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and somehow the dome became a symbol for a city’s rebirth. This is the story of New Orleans, through the story of its dome. Narrated by Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank and the Bangas.

Transcript

JODY AVIRGAN: From ESPN, you’re listening to 30 for 30 podcasts. My name is Jody Avirgan. 

 

The Louisiana Superdome was built to help propel New Orleans into the future, an era of national prestige for Louisiana, as one politician put it. After almost 40 years and countless games, concerts, festivals, not to mention storms and political fights, it’s still standing. And in many ways, it continues to capture the essence of one of America’s great cities. 

 

All the hope, pain, superstition, it’s all wrapped up in the history of the giant Dome that dominates the skyline. 

 

This is the story of that Dome and that city. Now before we continue, a word of warning, this episode contains mature language and content.

 

Now, we present Cursed and Blessed. Our narrator is Tarriona Tank Ball of the New Orleans band Tank and the Bangas.

 

Here we go…

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

RAY NAGIN: Ladies and gentlemen this is not a test. This is the real deal.

 

REPORTER: This is the storm some have long feared. The one that could potentially devastate New Orleans, a city which is both below sea level and surrounded by water.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: On the morning of August 28th, 2005 – a Sunday – New Orleans officials declared the first-ever citywide evacuation… as Katrina moved towards landfall, we boarded our houses, gathered our families, and loaded our cars. Never realizing that things were about to change forever. 

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

SHERIFF HARRY LEE: You have an obligation to yourself and your family to haul ass and get out of here.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: We inched along I-10, right past the city’s biggest building.

 

But thousands, without cars, with no means to evacuate, headed to that huge building, The Louisiana Superdome, the refuge of last resort.

 

DOUG THORNTON: The Superdome is meant for football games, major events. It’s not a hospital, it’s not a hotel. There was no manual on how to deal with this kind of crisis.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Doug Thornton manages the Superdome. The morning Hurricane Katrina arrived, he was in his conference room with the National Guard, planning for how to provide for the people who were now sheltering on the field. Right outside the window, the storm was raging.  And then —

 

DOUG THORNTON: The lights blinked and they went off. So we’ve lost power, generator’s on.  And you know we’ve got to make sure that people don’t panic. And the minute I walked outside the conference room I could hear that loud banging noise. It was deafening.

 

 

[NBCUniversal Archives

 

Sound of roof]

 

 

DOUG THORNTON: It sounded like a roller coaster going over the roof.  

 

 

[NBCUniversal Archives

 

BRIAN WILLIAMS: It sounded like a New York City subway train others said they thought it was Thunder or someone hammering, and in a way it was, it was Katrina hammering away at the roof trying to get in.]

 

 

DOUG THORNTON: Every time a huge gust of wind would blow, you’d hear that metal deck just bang bang bang bang bang against the frame. And then it would subside a little bit and you’d hear it again it would just rapidly hit the steel.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Mike Foster works security for the Dome. He was there as part of Doug’s emergency team.

 

MIKE FOSTER: It’s like bombs falling on top of the building. That’s literally how it sound. Boom boom. 

 

 

[NBCUniversal Archives

 

Sound of roof]

 

DOUG THORNTON: And what was happening is the wind was just ripping that metal deck away, peeling it. 

 

MIKE FOSTER: Yeah the roof is coming off the building.

 

DOUG THORNTON: It was like a like a schoolyard bully beating up on your best friend. You want to make it stop but for eight hours it continues. You think it’s going to stop but it doesn’t it just the wind keeps pounding. And then when the eye passes it shifts and it pounds you from a different side. That’s what Katrina was, Katrina was a bully just just punching your best friend and the Superdome couldn’t punch back.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: The Superdome was in big trouble, and it wasn’t the first time. This huge, iconic building, this fixture of New Orleans greatness — was shaky from the moment people first started dreaming of it. And it was always tied up with questions about what New Orleans was, who it was for, where we were headed…

 

WILL PENEGUY: In the later 60s we were very conservative, sleepy, big city in the South. 

 

MOON LANDRIEU: I mean we’ve always been recognized as a great, historic, unique site, but we’ve always also been kinda second rung in terms of commerce.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Moon Landrieu was the mayor of New Orleans for most of the 1970’s, and before that, a city councilperson. He made his mark by taking a strong stance against segregation.

 

MOON LANDRIEU: We were coming out of segregation era in the South. I was moving heaven and earth to try to integrate society.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Sports played a major role when it came to racial integration through the ’60s and ’70s. Sometimes it led the way, with black and white players on the same team. Sometimes it showed how far a city like New Orleans — who wanted to attract a pro sports franchise — still had to go. In 1965, the American Football League came to New Orleans for their annual All Star Game. Sports journalist, Ro Brown…

 

RO BROWN: African-American players —  cabs wouldn’t pick them up, they couldn’t go in some of the places in the French Quarter.  And so they got together and they say we ain’t playin’. And they moved the game to Houston, which didn’t look good for a city that wanted to get a professional sports franchise.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: It was the first boycott of a city in professional sports history. And what’s more, the game had been moved to HOUSTON, another southern city on the rise. This was a major blow. New Orleans wanted a pro team, but the northern-run league was nervous…

 

ALEX LEWIS: They said: Oh no no no no no. Uh-uh.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Alex Lewis was the first head of personnel at the Superdome. 

 

ALEX LEWIS: If we wanted to attract major teams and major attractions, major tourism dollars we had to get away from the Old South.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL:  But just one year later, in 1966, New Orleans managed to convince the NFL that it was a changing place. The city got its team.

 

A lot of this was due to the work of one man: Dave Dixon.  

 

DAVE DIXON: I know that a National Football League franchise would be a good thing for this city, exactly what it needs.  

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: He was a businessman… well-connected… and he loved sports. He put everything he had into lobbying for a pro franchise. And when he got the yes — we got our Saints.

 

 

[Historical  New Orleans Collection

 

DAVE DIXON: To me the named Saints was perfect because of the song. Everybody here knows the song. You could stop 100 people on the street and say, have you ever heard the song, When the Saints Go Marching In? Oh yeah sure. I’d say a hundred out of a hundred.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: For the 1967 season, the Saints would play at Tulane Stadium. But Dave Dixon had a vision for a better home — something like Houston’s Astrodome, which would be perfect in New Orleans’ hot, muggy weather.

 

 

[Historical  New Orleans Collection

 

DAVE DIXON: And I knew the name Superdome would be perfect. The only two names I considered were Ultradome or Superdome.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Dixon convinced Governor John McKeithen, a politician from north Louisiana, that the state should build a huge stadium way down south, in New Orleans.

 

 

[Historical  New Orleans Collection

DAVE DIXON: He said My God. He said that would make the Astrodome look like a peanut dome. And he said that would be the greatest building in history. By God we’ll build that sucker!] 

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: It’s one thing to say build that sucker — and another actually to build it. Sportswriter Will Peneguy.

 

WILL PENEGUY: It was like juggling blades five or six at a time to get it done.

 

MOON LANDRIEU: There was anxiety constantly in building this stadium — not only where it was gonna be built, but who was going to build it, who’s gonna be the architect. How are we going to get minority involvement in it? Race was such a very important part of this. And I think it has served to galvanize and to make racial relations far far better. 

 

DON HUBBARD: We kind of thought that since the Dome was the largest economic development project, we should be involved. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Don Hubbard was active in the Civil Rights Movement and a leader in the Congress for Racial Equality.

 

DON HUBBARD: So how do you get involved? You get involved by owning a company that would go in there. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Don started a business with politician Sherman Copelin, and they landed the first contract to operate the Superdome.

 

DON HUBBARD: Sherman and I kind of call it economics, black economics.

 

ED ROBINSON: He hired more African-Americans than anybody.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Ed Robinson was one of those hires. Ed worked at the Dome for 23 years, in security and then as an event coordinator.

 

ED ROBINSON: Here’s an opportunity for us to go work for a large African American company. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Ed grew up in New Orleans on the West Bank of the Mississippi. Every time he crossed the river, Ed got a front row view of the Superdome being built, smack in the middle of downtown.

 

ED ROBINSON: Never dreamed I’d be working for it. The Superdome was like a different era. It was a new aroma that our city was doing.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: But building this new era wasn’t cheap. Moon Landrieu was worried.

 

MOON LANDRIEU: I called the governor, and I said Governor I think I better advise you that this stadium is running far far more than we had thought it would cost and what we’d campaigned on.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: It’s hard to build something this big. But here in New Orleans, there’s no avoiding the ground we stand on.

 

MOON LANDRIEU: New Orleans is built on what is a marsh. We are at sea level or below sea level at certain points. And so when you drive pilings in New Orleans they don’t hit a base. Sometimes a piling is driven and it just goes down and you’ve lost it. (laughs) You just lost it.  (laughs)  

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Stadiums can turn into a money pit. And this was getting especially bad. But the Governor wasn’t deterred.

 

MOON LANDRIEU: And he said to me, he said Brother Moon —  he always called me Brother Moon — just don’t worry about the mule just load the wagon.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Finally, August 1975, after five years of planning and four years of construction, the Dome opened for business. The message boards read: “Welcome to Tomorrow.”

 

WILL PENEGUY: It was an eye opener. You know, we can do this sort of stuff.

 

MOON LANDRIEU: Now I may sound like a goofy little kid when I say this, but for New Orleans it was moving essentially into the big leagues.

 

 

[LOUISIANA SUPERDOME TOUR COMMERCIAL

 

NARRATOR: the Superdome stands in the tradition of the great cathedrals of Europe.]

 

 

ALEX  LEWIS: I remember some ads.  You could put the Astrodome inside the Superdome and fly a plane around it —  inside the dome.

 

 

[LOUISIANA SUPERDOME TOUR COMMERCIAL

 

NARRATOR: Everything about the Superdome says big. Big enough to hold the entire Houston Astrodome.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: One impact no one could ignore: no other city has a stadium that dominates the skyline like the Superdome does. You can see it from anywhere.

 

DOUG THORNTON: Architecturally it’s timeless. 

 

ED ROBINSON: It’s a spaceship.  

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: It’s really a flying saucer.

 

BRIAN BOYLES: People in New Orleans see the Superdome as a member of the family.

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: This super super happy place.

 

DOUG THORNTON: We refer to this affectionately as the living room of New Orleans.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: In a city that loves to party together, the Dome became the home not just for football games, but for every type of celebration.

 

MATT SCHRENK: It’s always the place where the biggest thing happens.  

 

WILL PENEGUY: We had a bull-riding rodeo, showed very interesting. 

 

DOUG THORNTON: I was here for the Rolling Stones concert in 1978. 

 

MADELINE LANDRIEU: A whole generation of lawyers took the bar exam in the Dome.

 

DOUG THORNTON: Everything from boxing matches to monster trucks. 

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: Big time concerts, like Essence.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: My first Essence Festival, I hosted a stage — like a super lounge.  Woo!!! Man, I got to meet Queen Latifah, Dougie Fresh. I’d never forget it. It’s like so many things happen in the Superdome that I didn’t even know about.

 

ALEX LEWIS: A number of circuses. 

 

MOON LANDRIEU: The Pope has been there. 

 

BRIAN BOYLES: I graduated from college in the Superdome.

 

RO BROWN: I covered the first Final Four in the Superdome.

 

MADELINE LANDRIEU: The Republican National Convention. 

 

ED ROBINSON:  The fight, Ali/Spinks fight. 

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: It’s the heartbeat of the city.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Like most New Orleanians, legendary Jazz musician Kermit Ruffins is personally connected to the Dome. 

 

KERMIT RUFFINS:  Superdome, it says it all. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Kermit is New Orleans musical royalty. He founded the Rebirth Brass Band, starred in the TV series Treme, but long before that, when he was a little kid growing up in the Lower 9th Ward, Kermit’s dad worked at the Superdome. And one time, he brought Kermit to work – and let him run around on the turf.

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: Me and my little brother and my cousins — we were just throwing the ball and running, tackling each other. It was only us on the whole field. It was heaven. All those lights and this huge arena.  And then I can remember real good that my dad giving all of us a push broom. Lloyd, Kermit y’all come over here. I want y’all to push this broom and I want y’all to stay in line and go all the way around the bottom floor.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Decades later, during Saints games, Kermit would stand alone with his trumpet on that 50 yard line.

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: I played the national anthem numerous times in the Dome. (Hums anthem) And you talking about anxiety. Until they say: and now Kermit Ruffins and it all goes away.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Kermit has been a Saints fan for as long as he can remember.

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: I think I’m the biggest Saints fan. I wrote a song called Saints in the Super Bowl. It says (singing) all I want for Christmas is the Saints in the Super Bowl. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: But being a Saints fan wasn’t always easy. Back when Kermit was coming up, there was NO way this team was going to the Super Bowl.  

 

 

[NFL FILMS

 

STEVE SABOL: The Saints often seemed to be playing every quarter as if they had spent a long night in the French Quarter.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: For their first couple of decades, the New Orleans Saints were a losing team. In the years after the Dome opened, the team just couldn’t win. 

 

 

[NFL FILMS 

 

STEVE SABOL: And during the first 18 years of their existence, they have never had a winning season. This is truly the ideal team for the city that gave birth to the Blues.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: For much of the country watching on TV, the Superdome was where they’d see embarrassed Saints fans watching with paper bags over their heads, affectionately referring to their losing team as the Aints.

 

But still the fans came. 

 

Jeff Duncan has been writing about the Saints for decades. He sees their fans as perhaps the most loyal in all of football.

 

JEFF DUNCAN: If you live in this general region you have to defend the honor of the New Orleans Saints because they represent the city of New Orleans. They wear that fleur de lis on their helmet. It’s the city symbol.

 

ALEX LEWIS: They’re the Saints. That’s our team.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: And the Dome, their home, was New Orleans.  One big, loving party — in costume.  

 

ED ROBINSON: Everybody’s got black and gold on.

 

RO BROWN: People in New Orleans like to dress up. 

 

JEFF DUNCAN: You know, a Batman Saints fan, clown Saints fan. 

 

ED ROBINSON: Elvis.

 

JEFF DUNCAN: There’s a Pope Saints fan. There’s a Moses Saints fan. 

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: Whistle Monster, the guy with the big whistle on his head.

 

ED ROBINSON: We got one lady that wears a the referee dress every game.

 

JEFF DUNCAN: Darth Saint would go in this black long cape with black eye makeup, horns coming out of his head. 

 

RO BROWN: Saints crowds are the most diverse in the National Football League. 

 

JEFF DUNCAN: All backgrounds, races, ages, classes.  They’re all there.

 

RO BROWN: This is not their team.  These are their boys. (laughs)

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: But despite all the love that filled the dome, the team continued to suffer on the field.  People pointed to the usual reasons: bad coaches, bad players… but there were rumors that the team’s woes were because of the Dome itself. Doug Thornton knew all about those rumors.

 

DOUG THORNTON: When the Saints were 1 and 15, you know, and we were having these bad seasons, many people said it was because it was built upon an old graveyard here.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: In New Orleans, curses are no joke. Maybe THAT’S what made the Saints the Aints.

 

DOUG THORNTON: We used to think that it was cursed. But I don’t believe that. 

 

 

[NFL

 

AL MICHAELS: They’ve been in the league for 34 years; they’ve never won a playoff game.]  

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: In 2000, the Saints finally had a chance in the Dome.

 

 

[NFL

 

AL MICHAELS: Rams Saints, coming up from New Orleans.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: And the team wasn’t taking any chances.

 

DOUG THORNTON: I remember when she went on the field and did the dance. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: The she was Ava Kay Jones, a Voodoo Priestess. 

 

AVA KAY: I was going there to cleanse the Dome of evil spirits, to bless the Saints, and to bring the team to victory.

 

See it had been 34 years, and they had never won a playoff game. And so they decided to bring in the big guns — and that would be me all of 5 feet 2  inches.  

 

A part of the dome was built on the site of  the old Girod Street Cemetery. And you know that’s really not exactly kosher to be building a sports facility on top of some people’s ancestors, ya know? 

 

People were feeling strongly that there was something otherworldly going on here. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: It was a Hail Mary pass.  Ava stood on the 45 yard line before the game began, armed to the hilt with the tools of a voodoo priestess.

 

AVA KAY: I think I had about three dancers, three drummers, myself. And, very importantly, the snake. Yan-San, my pet boa constrictor. And I was also armed with a bottle of gin for the spirits.

 

I was focused on the crowd, and they were ready for us. They were just going wild. Just screaming and shouting, go ahead, go, you know, just cheering us on. I got sixty seven thousand people to chant along with me, for everything I put in there —  in that gris gris bag. I would tell them to yell with me ashé, and that means by the power of the spirit, it is done. Ashé, ashé!

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: And it was done. 

 

 

[NFL 

 

AL MICHAELS: Finally, the New Orleans Saints advance in the playoffs.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: The Saints won their first ever playoff game that day after more than 30 years as a franchise.

 

At that moment,  New Orleans had never loved the team or the Dome more. 

 

But the Dome was getting old, turning 25. When a lot of stadiums start to show their age. 

 

All around the country, cities were re-evaluating the domes they had built in the ’70s and ’80s…

 

WILL PENEGUY: All these other multi-purpose stadiums have died and been torn down. Including the Astrodome which was the first.

 

RO BROWN: Seattle built a dome after the Superdome.  Detroit built a dome. Indianapolis, Minneapolis. All four those suckers have been imploded. 

 

DOUG THORNTON: And the truth is the Superdome in the early 2000s was probably in need of a significant renovation. The state just didn’t have the money. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Nevertheless, Saints owner Tom Benson wanted Louisiana to pay for it. Benson was from New Orleans, but he also had a home in San Antonio, where some thought he wanted to move the team. 

 

 

[Audio courtesy of Louisiana Public Broadcasting

 

REPORTER: Efforts to keep the New Orleans Saints from leaving are the focus of much of the debate over the issue these days. Saints owner Tom Benson has threatened…]

 

 

BRIAN BOYLES: Almost every NFL owner in the last 10 years has tried to twist the arms of local officials to get more money to get new stadiums. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Brian Boyles is the author of “New Orleans Boom and Blackout.”

 

BRIAN BOYLES: Tom Benson was the head of the Finance Committee for the NFL for quite a long time when they were making the strategy to demand public subsidies for stadiums. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Benson was powerful. He was pitting the team he owned, the city that housed the dome, and the state that owned and paid for it, against each other. 

 

But something was brewing that would transform everyone’s priorities. 

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: This is the storm some have long feared, the one that could potentially…]

 

 

RO BROWN: Prior to Katrina those were the two entities that were butting heads with the lease, and in a way, I guess you could say that maybe Katrina saved that relationship.

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: Last night we began this broadcast saying Katrina was bad, very bad. Well last night we didn’t know the half of it.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Midday Monday, the day after Katrina first made landfall, there was a hole in the roof of the Dome. Downed trees, damaged buildings… broken windows all across the city. 

 

But, the storm had moved on. The wind and rain had stopped. The people stuck in the city, and those of us watching on TV were thinking — maybe it’s over.

 

And then, a second disaster struck.

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: New Orleans thought it had been spared the worst. And then two major levees broke and slowly the city has filled with water.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: The Superdome was surrounded by water — literally an island of last resort. And as people were rescued from their attics and rooftops, thousands were brought into the damaged Dome.

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: Convoys of high water vehicles are taking weary refugees to the only higher ground left: the Superdome.]

 

 

DOUG THORNTON: It seemed like we just kept bringing people here. You know the National Guard was dropping them off by helicopter, by boat, by high water vehicle. So every day the place was just filling. 

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: The Guard is out in the flooded neighborhoods. They are carrying families. Those families, those evacuees are then being taken to the Superdome.

 

WOMAN: People trapped, they lost their home. They don’t have no water, need medicine. I need insulin right now.]

 

 

MIKE FOSTER: Here come another big huge group of people. Look like it was never going to end.

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: The city is now cut off from the outside. The main I-10 bridge to the east shredded by Katrina’s storm surge, other access routes underwater.]

 

 

MIKE FOSTER: It was still coming, walking through the water. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: After the flooding, some 30,000 people would end up in the Dome — which was now without air conditioning and had little light. For its entire history the Superdome had hosted people comfortably, inside. But now the outside had come crashing in on Doug Thornton, Mike Foster, and all the people they were trying to protect.

 

JULIE PIERI: I was scared and in shock and I didn’t know what was going to come next, you know.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: One of those people was Julie Pieri. After the levees broke, she walked through the flooded city, waist high water, and made her way to the Dome. Her father was next to her. Above her head, she carried her boyfriend’s cat.

 

When they got to the Superdome, they spent one night inside, but then moved outside, to the Dome’s raised plaza level, where they formed a small group with a family, whose kids took turns petting the cat inside her carrier. They slept on scavenged cardboard boxes, and at one point, Julie and the kids got out the colored pencils she’d brought with her.

 

JULIE PIERI: Yeah, we colored the cardboard into beds — like we made little pillows and little sheets and stuff to kind of give it a like a sense of normalcy. I felt bad for these little kids.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: It was chaos. People were everywhere, inside the Dome and out on the concourse, endlessly waiting in the relentless heat.

 

JULIE PIERI: We would take the same walk, the same conversation, the same not knowing. You know you just didn’t know when you were going to get out. The tensions were obviously getting higher. You know, everybody’s frustrated. 

 

DOUG THORNTON: It’s probably 85 degrees inside and 95 outside with 100 percent humidity because everything is wet.  

 

JULIE PIERI: You put that many people in one space, in the heat after you’ve potentially lost everything. 

 

MIKE FOSTER: It was a cesspool. 

 

DOUG THORNTON: Water dripping everywhere, you could walk through a stairwell and it felt like a waterfall. 

 

JULIE PIERI: You would hear people crying, you would hear little small groups fighting.

 

MIKE FOSTER:  Bathrooms overflowing, they went to the restroom wherever they could go.

 

DOUG THORNTON:  Limited food and water, no bedding, very few medical supplies, the mold was setting in. 

 

MIKE FOSTER: Oh man it’s so hot up in here! What are we gonna do? We trapped!

 

DOUG THORNTON: The building was on life support. It was now like a patient that was struggling — not just the people inside — but the building itself was struggling to survive.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: September 1, 2005, four days after the first people arrived at the Superdome. Buses began waiting through the flooded streets to get to them.

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: The Superdome is being cleared out, again buses rolled overnight to the dome, to get people out of that area…]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Doug Thornton helped people file on and watched as they pulled away. It took several days to fully evacuate the Dome. 

 

Many buses went to Houston, to the Astrodome — the stadium the Superdome had been built to compete with.

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: Exhausted and desperate, families continue to recount the horrors of their ordeal at the New Orleans Superdome. 

 

WOMAN: People died in that Superdome, and you don’t know nothing about it.] 

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: All told there were three deaths in the Superdome — two elderly patients, and one suicide. There were also unconfirmed reports of rape and other violence.

 

For many who were inside the Dome, like Julie Pieri, it was impossible to look at or even think about the building.

 

JULIE PIERI: When I picture it in my head I just think oh that’s where I was during Katrina and it was hell on earth. It was hot. I can’t hear the Dome and not think about that time.

 

JEFF DUNCAN: While there was tremendous suffering in the building, I also think early on it was a shelter of last resort so it protected a lot of New Orleanians. 

 

MIKE FOSTER: I mean the roof came off this building, but it stood. It stood very strong.  And it saved a tremendous amount of lives. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Doug was the last Superdome employee to leave the building and for the first time in days, had a moment to reflect.

 

DOUG THORNTON: It wasn’t until we got in the helicopter and we started to lift off and I could see the roof first-hand. I’m about eye-to-eye with that roof and I’m seeing a nine point six acre roof peeled like an onion. Pieces of metal deck that had been ripped by the wind and curled up. Gaping holes that were a hundred feet long in the roof.

 

And it was really at that moment that I just realized how massive the damage was.  My heart sank, and then as we flew out over New Orleans, I looked back over my left shoulder, and I could see the Dome in the background, smoke billowing from some part of the city, and I could see that roof destroyed. And the water was glistening, and I said, this is epic.  It’s over. How could we possibly come back? How will we ever rebuild it?

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Four days later, Doug Thornton flew back by helicopter to take a look at the Dome.

 

DOUG THORNTON: And that’s when I walked through — had to have a respirator — so much mold and bacteria here. I remember seeing a big pile of debris probably 30 feet high. All these personal belongings, and I saw all the mold in the building, it was starting to creep in at the very upper levels. You could see it, just turning black, black mold.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Doug didn’t know if the Dome could be rebuilt. Which is what some people were saying about New Orleans. This beloved, sinking city had never looked more vulnerable.

 

 

[Footage courtesy of ABCNEWS VIDEOSOURCE

 

REPORTER: I know it’s blasphemous to consider an America without in New Orleans, but this part of the world is eroding. So pouring billions into a land that is on borrowed time, how do you justify that?] 

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: In early October, a month after Katrina, a team of architects and engineers told Doug: the Superdome could be rebuilt. And FEMA would reimburse costs related to storm damage. Doug had also lost his home and neighborhood. He was recovering on two fronts. This was his first glimmer of hope.

 

DOUG THORNTON: It was something tangible that people in New Orleans could look to and say, you know what. We’re putting a stake in the ground and we’re coming back. You can’t take away our our city and you can’t take away our Superdome and we plant a flag and we’re gonna be here for a while. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: But in order to rebuild Doug needed other people to say yes. The city, the state, the team… all the same types of people who had to get together to build the Dome in the first place.

 

And some of us had different priorities, like rebuilding houses and getting dispersed New Orleanians back home again.

 

DOUG THORNTON: Governor Kathleen Blanco was under a lot of pressure to rebuild roads, hospitals, schools, and the Superdome was probably far down the list.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Pretty quickly though, the state was on board. The Dome was a major economic engine, it could help the city recover. And FEMA would kick in money. 

 

But there was one big problem: Tom Benson, owner of the Saints. Rumors started circulating that Benson wanted to use the damaged Dome as an excuse to leave  — and move the team to San Antonio. 

 

Without the Saints, there would be little reason to invest in the Dome.

 

MATT SCHRENK: Which sucks. That’s like a double whammy.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Matt Schrenk has lived in New Orleans his entire life. A Saints superfan. 

 

MATT SCHRENK: What are you trying to do? Is this for leverage? Do you really want to move the team?

 

 

[ESPN

 

SAINTS FAN: We lost everything we have. That’s the only thing we got is the New Orleans Saints, man.

 

REPORTER: What Benson covets is a new stadium to replace the 30 year-old Superdome which was pummeled by Katrina.]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Reporters started to confront Benson about his plans.

 

[WWL-TV, New Orleans LA

TOM BENSON: I’m gonna take the damn thing and throw it away….]

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: After a game at LSU’s stadium in Baton Rogue, where the Saints were playing some of their home games in 2005, Benson surrounded by security, lost his temper, and swiped at a news camera! A nearby fan saw the incident and started heckling him… 

 

[WWL-TV, New Orleans LA

 

SAINTS FAN: Keep filming. I dare ya Benson. ]

 

MATT SCHRENK : Benson said he feared for his safety being in Baton Rouge at the stadium; these fans are angry. I was like well hell yeah we’re angry, you just said that you were going to move the team.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Matt didn’t understand what Benson was doing. The incident with the heckler was the final straw. So he and a friend decided to do something. They’d make some t-shirts.

 

MATT SCHRENK: They need to say fuck Benson, but the U is a fleur de leis. I was like, I’m on it. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: They picked up the shirts and drove to LSU’s Stadium in Baton Rouge.

 

MATT SCHRENK :  And we had the shirts on and we sold out of them before the game started. It was like one thing that was tangible, right? There’s all those things on that recovery — whether it’s like trying to get your money from FEMA or like getting your house right, or your job is not there because it flooded or whatever but like this particular person said, that I might want to move the Saints. Fuck that. (laughs)

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Over the next several weeks, there was a series of quiet conversations between the NFL, local business people, and Tom Benson. Benson was convinced the team would be supported. He decided to stay. Doug Thornton could feel the rebuilding momentum growing. Engineers told him getting the Dome back to 100% would take two to two and a half years. Then he got a call.

 

DOUG THORNTON: I get a call from Roger Goodell. He wasn’t the commissioner then, he was the chief operating officer. And he said is there any way that we can accelerate the construction? 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Goodell offered 20 million to help speed things along and get the dome ready for the 2006 opener. He said —

 

DOUG THORNTON: We really need to play the full season there next year.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Construction started. The roof was a huge priority. And when workers began, they planted a flag on the top of the Dome. It had the hurricane symbol on it with the big strike-through line. That summer, with the flag fluttering, New Orleans had very little rain. One day, mid July —

 

DOUG THORNTON: Tom Keller who was the superintendent for the roofing company,  he says: I’ve got great news. We’re going to be substantially complete forty days ahead of their schedule. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Maybe the first time in Superdome history — maybe the history of all construction — a massive project was going to be done well ahead of time. And then Tom Keller told Doug:

 

DOUG THORNTON: And I’m taking the flag with me as a memento. And the room went silent.  It’s a true story. He takes the flag down. He goes back to his home. A week later the first hurricane of the 2006 hurricane season is brewing in the Caribbean. All of New Orleans is on high alert. And we knew the one thing that could stop our football game from being played in September would be another two or three week delay because of damage from another hurricane. And I called Tom, I said: Tom have you seen the weather? He says No I said there’s a hurricane in the Caribbean. Where’s the flag? He said I’ve got it right here I said get the damn flag back on the roof. He said it’ll be there tomorrow. He put the flag back on the roof, the hurricane went off up into the East Coast in the Atlantic, never made landfall.  We didn’t have one hurricane enter the Gulf of Mexico in 2006, not one.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Doug Thornton may not believe in curses, but superstition takes many forms.

 

DOUG THORNTON: And the flag stayed on the roof until the night we played the Falcons.

 

 

[NFL

 

MIKE TIRICO: What a pleasure it is to welcome all of you back inside the Louisiana Superdome.  Hi I’m Mike Tirico…]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: September 25, 2006. Saints versus Falcons.

 

 

[NFL

 

MIKE TIRICO: The last time that thousands gathered here, their mission was survival. Well 56 weeks after Hurricane Katrina, everything’s changed about New Orleans…]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Doug stood at the doors watching people come in, tears in their eyes, grateful to be back. During the pregame ceremony, Doug was standing on the sidelines. 

 

DOUG THORNTON: We’re counting down the show and I’m hearing in my earpiece…three, two, one. And the house lights go dark and I realized that I was standing at almost the exact same spot on the football field on that morning that the roof was being peeled like an onion. And I look up and I see that same spot in the roof now and it’s closed. And I look around and I see all the seats and they’re filled with people. And I just marveled at at the sense of how far we’d come.

 

 

[NFL

 

MIKE TIRICO: Quite simply tonight is the most significant New Orleans Saints game, ever. And they’re here…]

 

 

WILL PENEGUY: Watching the Saints come out on the field for that game against the Falcons and the crowd reaction, it was electrical. I mean my body felt it, I teared up. It was pretty spectacular.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: And then, just a few minutes into the game, a play that would come to define the Saints and their relationship with their city. The Falcons were attempting to punt, and a little-known special teams player Steve Gleason came screaming up the middle. 

 

 

[NFL

 

MIKE TIRICO: Look out, right through, a kick blocked by Steve Gleason…]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: There would one day be a statue outside the Superdome of Steve Gleason, diving through the air, blocking that punt. The statue is called “Rebirth.”

 

 

[NFL

 

MIKE TIRICO: Touchdown New Orleans!

 

TONY KORNHEISER: For those people who look to the New Orleans Saints as something that will uplift them, uplift this city, uplift the entire Gulf region, they just had it.  It’s more than a football game and that delivered on everything they could have hoped for.]

 

 

MITCH LANDRIEU: I mean to say it was a spiritual experience is not an overstatement. It was really transformational.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Mitch Landrieu was New Orleans’ mayor from 2010 to 2018.

 

After that game, over the next few years, he saw the love grow and grow.

 

MITCH LANDRIEU: The future of the Saints and the future of the city were inextricably bound. And I think that we basically said, you know, you are us and we are you. There was no way we were going to break up ever after that.  

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: A word began to appear on signs and t-shirts: Believe. 

 

And inside the Dome, fans knew they could help their Saints to victory by creating as much noise as possible. 

 

You don’t understand what it’s like to be in there.  It is LOUD. Everyone in there is getting their emotions out.

 

JEFF DUNCAN: You can feel them banging on the wall of the Superdome. And it rattles up and goes off the ceiling, bounces straight down to the field.

 

RO BROWN: It has a roof so it never really leaves. Unlike an outdoor stadium, it never goes out.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: The Dome contained all that energy, pain, and joy. In 2010, it powered the team to win an NFC championship in a last minute field goal.

 

 

[NFL

 

JOE BUCK: Hartley… sends the Saints to the Superbowl!]

 

 

BRIAN BOYLES: When that kick went through the uprights it felt like the Superdome literally tilted to 45 degrees. I’ve never cried so hard.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: All I want for Christmas is the Saints in the Superbowl. Santa finally granted Kermit Ruffins his wish. Maybe his song worked.

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: The year I wrote it, they went straight to the Super Bowl and won.

 

 

[NFL

 

ANNOUNCER: Get ready to party with a Lombardi, New Orleans. The miracle in Miami has happened. The Saints have won the Superbowl. 

 

PLAYERS: We did it, we did it, we did it.]

 

 

MITCH LANDRIEU: I remember at a very young age going with my dad to the Superdome site before the physical framing was complete. Looking up at just the bones of the steel that had not yet connected at the top. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: When Mitch Landrieu’s father Moon was mayor, the Superdome was a promise of what was possible. Forty years later, Mitch was mayor – and a few years into his first term, the Dome was set to host its first Superbowl post Katrina. It was a chance for New Orleans to show off its recovery.

 

BRIAN BOYLES: The Super Bowl presented this opportunity to say we’re back in business. The whole world is watching and we can put on a show like no other. 

 

 

[NFL

 

JIM NANTZ: Wide to the left, as Kaepernick thought about it, look out and he’s tripped up by…]

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Then, third quarter, in the middle of an announcer’s sentence, something went wrong.

 

 

[NFL

 

PHIL SIMMS: Vernon Davis, watch. Well look at the safety is anticipating…] 

 

 

BRIAN BOYLES: The blackout seemed to say: Hmm, not so fast. 

 

 

[NFL REPORTER: Half the power in New Orleans’ stadium, the Superdome here, is out.] 

 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: It was pretty humiliating. The utility company had installed a faulty relay switch — a device ironically installed to prevent blackouts . Half the stadium went dark. People watching on TV saw players milling around on the field, waiting to figure out what was going on.

 

RO BROWN: You feel embarrassed for the building and for the city.

 

KERMIT RUFFINS: Did they pay their light bill?

 

WILL PENEGUY: It’s a black eye for the building.

 

MITCH LANDRIEU: Your heart sinks to your feet cause the whole world’s watching you. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Doug Thornton, the head of the Superdome, was sitting in the NFL control booth when it happened. And once again, he was inside the Dome in darkness.

 

DOUG THORNTON: It’s the end of life as I know it. Oh my God that was a terrible moment. Terrible moment.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Someone else was in the Dome that night, feeling the electricity — or lack thereof.

 

AVA KAY: I was right there, very good seat. Maybe 10 rows from the field. 

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Thirteen years after cleansing the Dome of evil spirits, Voodoo Priestess Ava Kay Jones was back that night, when the lights went out. Not to chase away evil spirits, just to enjoy the game. But the spirits showed up anyway.

 

AVA KAY: I knew that everybody was watching, and I’m saying to myself what does this mean? And why did this happen, of course. I knew people were familiar with the Superdome curse, and people would think: oh this is New Orleans; I wonder if some ghost put out the lights. You know, I thought it was kind of good for our image as a city of spirits.

 

MITCH LANDRIEU: (laughs) Well you know what? That’s as good of an explanation as I’ve heard. You know, I mean really what they heck. I mean whatever we can use to create a myth about New Orleans is good with us. And everybody in New Orleans believes in spirits and curses.

 

TARRIONA “TANK” BALL: Here in New Orleans, spirits are a part of everything we do.  The spirits remind us to take advantage of every moment — each parade, song, cold drink… each time we go to the Dome for a game or even a big, big party. Life is fleeting, but the Superdome, somehow it’s one of the things that’s always been here for us.

 

MITCH LANDRIEU: There’s no question that that building and the idea to put that building there transformed the city of New Orleans from the past into a modern day city and a modern day economy, so it’s hard to talk about the city without talking about the Dome.

 

It’s our civic cathedral.

 

Credits

CREDITS: Cursed and Blessed

 

Eve Abrams: reporter and producer

Jody Avirgan: producer and series editor

Mitra Kaboli: sound design and mixing

Gentry Kirby: editor

Erin Leyden: series editor

 

Our narrator was Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the New Orleans band Tank and the Bangas. Check them out!

 

Archival research: Mara Lazer, Derwin Graham, Reilly Bloom and Meghan Geier.

 

Special thanks: Tavia Osbey, Marigny Studios, Jacques Morial, Elizabeth Mancuso, and Mark Cave of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Fact-checking by Roger Jackson.

 

30 for 30 Podcasts producers: Andrew Mambo, Meradith Hoddinott.

 

30 for 30 Production support: Cath Sankey, Jennifer Thorpe, Eve Wulf, Reilly Bloom.

 

Executive Producers for 30 for 30: Connor Schell, Rob King, and Libby Geist

 

Development: Adam Neuhaus and Trevor Gill

 

ESPN Audio: Traug Keller, Tom Ricks, Megan Judge, Pete Gianesini, Ryan Granner

 

Our theme music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, who also makes the Song Exploder podcast.

 

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