Superdome Ready for Some Football

By Geoff Weisenberger, Associate Editor September 1, 2006

A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated portions of the Gulf Coast, perhaps the most publicized building in the days following the storm—the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans—is back in business.

Design firm Ellerbe Becket’s Kansas City office played a key role in making this happen. The firm had been working with the Superdome’s owner, the Louisiana Stadium Exhibition District, since 2001 to upgrade the building—home of the New Orleans Saints—to maintain it at a competitive level with other NFL facilities.

Immediately following Katrina, Ellerbe Becket was contacted to perform a damage assessment, as the Superdome’s management wanted the facility back in operation as soon as possible.

The NFL indicated it would aid with the building’s recovery on the condition that it be fully operational for the Saints’ first home game of the 2006 season on Sept. 25. “So we took our already fast schedule and put it into hyperdrive,” said Paul Griesemer, architectural director with Ellerbe Becket.

The firm brought a team of about 45 engineers and architects to evaluate every aspect of the stadium, including all building systems. The initial and totally worse-case damage report, in terms of finances, was $200 million.

Every building system was fully tested to see where each stood. There was good news: Many systems were still fully functional. One such system, emergency power, according to Griesemer, stayed functional through the entire event; the Superdome served as a refuge of last resort and housed thousands of people for several days. The challenge with keeping it running was fuel supply. “When you put generators in stadiums, you generally design them to run for a matter of hours to get people out of the building, not for days to keep the lights on,” he said. As the water level rose around the building, the generator had to be protected and fuel brought to the building. This was accomplished by pumping fuel directly from trucks into the generators.

The most significant damage was to the roof, which had to be completely re-engineered. The protective membrane was shredded by wind and debris, and much of it blew off completely. The original layered system has since been replaced with a stronger system consisting of a “monolithic” foam roof covered by an acrylic coat topping, which is much less susceptible to wind and debris damage.

As for the upgrade portion of the project, most of the improvements were geared toward enhancing the fan experience. Along with this goal, Griesemer said that re-imaging the building was also something that needed to be considered. “We took a hard look at the areas of the Superdome in which we knew the public’s confidence would be shaken if they weren’t completely re-imaged,” he said. Ellerbe Becket redesigned those portions, most notably the concourse and food service areas; concession stands have been completely rebuilt from the ground up.

According to Griesemer, the Dome is on schedule to be open for business for the Saints game on Sept. 25.