As Hurricane Isaac bore down on New Orleans on Tuesday night, it was impossible for Doug Thornton not to think of Katrina. It was seven years ago Wednesday that Thornton was bunkered down in the Superdome when Katrina and all her force blew into New Orleans.
Just as he was then, Thornton was in the dome Tuesday night when Isaac made landfall about 90 miles south of New Orleans in virtually the same place as Katrina.
"No, that's not lost on me at all," said Thornton, who's managed the Superdome since 1997. "It certainly brings back some pretty bad memories. I was just walking into the stadium [area] a few minutes ago. I could hear wind rushing over the roof. … It creates a whistling sound that echoes throughout the building. It gave me an eerie chill – a reminder of what was here in 2005."
[Yahoo! News: Live hurricane blog]
The difference between now and then is dramatic. This time around the dome is not designated as a shelter and Isaac isn't packing nearly the punch. It's listed as a Category 1 (winds up to 95 mph) as opposed Katrina, which was a Category 3 (winds up to 130 mph) when it made landfall. Still Thornton and a staff of 35, along with 18 security personnel, two engineers, two electricians, two plumbers, three food service employees, 12 members of the national guard and 10 state police officers remained on the grounds.
"We learned from past hurricanes that you cannot lock the door and walk away from this facility," Thornton explained. "This is a major asset of the state. We've got very sophisticated mechanical and electrical systems that have to be maintained and monitored, to make sure the building can be restarted. We have a Tulane [football] game Saturday night. I just got off the phone with Rick Dickson, their athletic director, and reassured him we'd be OK to play. Notwithstanding any power outages or unforeseen damage, we plan on doing that."
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The confidence comes from $14 billion spent on building stronger levees following Katrina, a sophisticated spray-foam roof that is literally seamless – Katrina's wind peeled off the old seamed roof "like an onion," Thornton said – and experience. Thornton estimates this is the 18th hurricane he's experienced in his 28 years of residence in America's southeast.
"It's something we learn to live with down here," he explained. "The nerves and anxiety come in waiting and not knowing what the storm is going to do. I was substantially more nervous when Katrina hit because it was a Category 5 [at one point] and because we were housing 30,000 people."
Isaac made landfall around 6:45 p.m. CT, with gusts of 60 mph blowing sheets of rain through New Orleans into Wednesday.
Thornton and his crew will remain inside the dome as long as the storm lasts, then will get to work on preparations for Saturday's Tulane-Rutgers game. That requires getting much of his staff which has left New Orleans back into town, as well as reaching out to the 2,000-plus part-time workers who staff games.
"We've learned a lot as a city, as a state and as a facility, from our experiences, how to prepare for these hurricanes," he said. Still, he added, "it's the ultimate irony. On the eve of Katrina's anniversary, I'm going through almost the same thing as before."
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