Doug Thornton still has the agenda from a meeting he attended seven years ago - Oct. 11, 2005, to be exact. That was the date the senior vice president of SMG, which operates the state-owned, now-named Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans,
Doug Thornton still has the agenda from a meeting he attended seven years ago - Oct. 11, 2005, to be exact. That was the date the senior vice president of SMG, which operates the state-owned, now-named Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, sat down with then Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to discuss what to do with a facility that had been the scene of "human squalor" (Thornton's words) during its six-day stint as a shelter of last resort as Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in late August of that year.
"We went in and said, 'We believe the Superdome can be rebuilt,' " recalls Thornton, who was SMG's regional vice president at the time. "It would probably have taken four years, at best, to design a new facility, fund it and build it, and we didn't have four years to wait. The only option we had to save the New Orleans Saints was to start rebuilding."
Even though members of Blanco's staff reportedly questioned the governor in private about the political ramifications of placing reconstruction of a football stadium ahead of rebuilding schools, hospitals and bridges, Blanco agreed with Thornton and his SMG team. "I made the point that the sooner we could repair and restore the Superdome, which was the most visible symbol of misery, the better," Thornton says. "We all thought repairing it would be inspirational to the community and help jump-start the recovery."
On Sept. 25, 2006, the Superdome reopened for a sold-out Monday Night Football game in which the Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-3. The $187 million renovation project, considered the largest reconstruction effort in the history of U.S. stadiums, employed approximately 850 workers and was completed in less than seven months - emerging as the powerful symbol Thornton envisioned.
Although some New Orleans neighborhoods remain abandoned, the athletic, fitness and recreation facilities featured on the Athletic Business Conference & Expo's preconference tour schedule - the Superdome, the University of New Orleans' Lakefront Arena and aquatic/recreation facilities, Tulane University's Reily Student Recreation Center and athletics complex, Pelican Park and Franco's Athletic Club - are thriving in the post-Katrina era after enduring previously unimaginable devastation.
"No one could have been prepared for what we went through. There's no way we could have been," says Wayne Morris, general manager of Franco's Athletic Club, a sprawling 112,000-square-foot facility in nearby Mandeville, La., that sustained an estimated $1 million in damage, mostly from wind and mold. "When you have that type of a storm, it doesn't matter where you are, because you are in the impact zone. But we're much better prepared today to go through a storm like Katrina than we were then."
Adds Vince Granito, associate athletic director at Tulane, where the athletics complex and the Reily Center both sustained significant flooding and structural damage, "The preparedness system that is now in place for hurricanes at Tulane, in New Orleans and along the entire Gulf Coast is so much more advanced than it was prior to Katrina."
New readiness protocols include, most important, improved efforts to keep open the lines of communication - which often are wiped out during hurricanes and even tropical storms. Most facilities now house remote computer servers offsite (some out of state), so managers can update websites and send emails to employees, as well as back up valuable data. Additionally, texting (which was not common in 2005) has become the default means of communication among staff members in most rewritten emergency management plans; texts are more likely to go through than phone calls when cell service is down, because they contain smaller pieces of information and require less work of cell towers.
At UNO, preparedness protocols were put to the test in advance of Hurricane Isaac, which hit the city in August, seven years to the day that Katrina struck. "You can't let your guard down, even when just a tropical storm is coming," says Marco Perez, general manager of Lakefront Arena, where crews either returned, donated or bagged up food in preparation for losing power to concessions coolers; burned critical data to thumb drives; and boarded up windows in anticipation of Isaac's arrival - things they hadn't done in advance of Katrina, which tore off the arena's roof and caused $26 million in damage to that facility and the adjacent aquatic center.
"You must prepare for the worst and hope for the best. You hear that all the time, but it's so true. We were not expecting Isaac to park on top of the city and bring days of rain, so we certainly weren't expecting it to be as monumental as it was," Perez continues, noting that the arena sustained major water damage and was without power for six days following Isaac. "Well, I'm so thankful we over-prepared."
"Every part of the country has some type of natural disaster to deal with," says Kathy Foley, director of Pelican Park in St. Tammany Parish's Recreation District #1 in Mandeville, where Katrina took out hundreds of trees, parts of 33 sports fields, pieces of buildings, vehicles and electricity on the 230-acre property. "We happen to have hurricanes down here, and we've just got to deal with that."
All of the individuals interviewed for this story dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by putting the revitalization of their facilities ahead of rebuilding even their own homes. "I lost my house," says Chris Maitre, associate director of the Reily Center, where $1.3 million worth of damage included a hole in the aquatic center's roof. "So I was going through that at the same time. But what can you do? You can't sit there and cry. You've got to be productive."
The Reily Center, despite its damage, became headquarters for Tulane's campus police force and facility services personnel, which commandeered canoes and boats found floating in a storage room to patrol the shutdown campus. By the middle of that October, it had reopened to members, even though the university canceled all classes that fall. "A lot of faculty and staff needed an outlet," Maitre recalls. "They needed a place for normalcy, and part of being normal if you're a recreation-driven person is enjoying fitness activities. Tulane is part of the environmental fabric of this neighborhood, and showing that we were back for people to work out some stress was important."
Club co-owner Sandy Franco tells a similar story. Members of the National Guard and other agencies took over the gymnasium at Franco's for six months following Katrina, sleeping on cots on a wood floor that was so warped that "it looked like waves," she says. (Franco's 23,000-square-foot location in the hard-hit Lakeview neighborhood was submerged under nine feet of water and could not be salvaged; the total loss of that facility was estimated at $2 million.)
An onsite military presence enabled Franco's to become one of the first buildings in the area to have power restored, and within a week of the storm, the club reopened for business while also providing free showers to anybody who needed them. "I never realized how much the club meant to people in the community, and that it's a place to connect," Franco says, echoing Maitre. "We desperately needed to open for them. They needed a place to come and have a release by working out. A lot of people also needed to make an emotional connection; probably one in three houses in this area had a tree right down the middle of it. This club plays a huge role in people's lives, which I think we just took for granted before Katrina."
"Public parks become a major resource after natural disasters like this," says Pelican Park's Foley. "We have the largest public building in this parish." That would be the Castine Center, a 46,000-square-foot arena that became a three-week staging area for 350 workers from Dallas-based utilities company TXU Energy. (As part of a post-Katrina arrangement with the Central Louisiana Electric Company, the park also served as a massive parking lot after Hurricane Isaac for trucks belonging to electrical crews.)
All five of Pelican Park's youth sports programs went on as scheduled that fall, although with a few modifications. "The mental health of a community is just as important as its physical health," Foley says. "We got this park opened for kids within six weeks. We didn't care what teams they were on; we didn't care if we didn't have officials; we didn't care if the uniforms didn't match. We just wanted the kids to be able to get out and play sports. They had been through a life-changing situation with Katrina and now they could go back to being kids again."
The fact that Pelican Park and the main Franco's facility are located north of New Orleans (meaning they missed the brunt of Katrina's fury) allowed for faster recovery. Sandy Franco and her husband, Ron - along with their four kids and their in-laws - actually rode out Katrina inside the club and were able to witness the damage as it happened through windows that were not boarded. Two racquetball courts served as the main place of shelter, but everyone moved freely around the club, which has gone through several additions over the years. "We felt very secure there," Sandy Franco says about the structure that was built in 1986. "The majority of the club was sound and solid."
By comparison, Tulane and UNO suffered much more extensive, long-term damage, some of which remains visible to this day.
Lakefront Arena sits on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain and takes on the winds before they blow further inland. A series of enormous holes were ripped in the facility's gravel-topped roof as the storm "pummeled the membrane underneath the gravel like a machine gun," Perez says. "The gravel served as the bullets."
Today, the arena is covered with a new asphalt-based modified bitumen roof, and 8,700 new seats are upholstered with a breathable, rubberized plastic weave that will repel (not absorb) water, should that roof give way in another storm. The majority of the reconstruction took almost three years. In the months following Katrina, the area surrounding the arena became a village that housed 1,000 FEMA trailers assigned to victims of the hurricane. "I was the mayor of FEMAville," Perez says. "While we were shut down, we were a small city."
The trailers are long gone, but Perez still sees daily reminders of the damage the hurricane wrought. Among the most noticeable is the lack of a modern scoreboard. The one that was destroyed was already 10 years old and in the process of being upgraded when the storm struck. For now, the Privateers men's and women's basketball teams have been using a wall-hung scoreboard that Perez calls "embarrassing," adding, "I've seen high schools with better boards than this. But it's all we could afford. There's only so much you can do when awaiting FEMA assistance." (FEMA reimbursements only cover the cost of damaged items and do not take into consideration upgrade costs.)
Two new LED wall scoreboards are expected to be in place in early 2013. That's also when the design phase will finally begin on the arena's 2,200-seat theater that was demolished and has remained practically untouched for more than seven years. Then there are the concourse restrooms. Most were destroyed and now have new tiles, ceilings and walls. But some original walls survived, and because of FEMA's reimbursement policy, those walls remain. "You will see an ugly lime-green 1983 tile on one wall, while the rest of the walls are beige and pretty," Perez says. "It looks foolish. The only reason we haven't repaired those other walls is because of time and money. We'll slowly replace them as we can financially, but we can't just replace them because they look bad. And the walls that were not damaged are some of the ugliest walls in the building."
At Tulane, all fall 2005 athletic teams were dispersed to various sites, where they practiced and played "home" games. Granito, who was assigned to oversee six teams in College Station, Texas, divided his time between there and the university. The school's three-level athletic complex was shut down for five months as it underwent first-floor repairs to weight and locker rooms, a ticket office, a gift shop, a hall-of-fame area and support spaces, as well as repairs to its synthetic turf and grass fields.
Damage to the Reily Center would have been much more significant had the building not been wrapped in vertical corrugated steel panels that protect the entire outside of the 156,000-square-foot facility against flying debris. The armor, which is applied for the entire hurricane season every year, also allowed the rec center to house 200 Tulane students for three days during Hurricane Isaac.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, since reopening in 2006 with a new 9.7-acre roof, remodeled concessions stands and an elaborate new scoreboard system, has undergone nearly $150 million of additional upgrades, for a total reconstruction bill of $336 million. Not all of the improvements were related to Katrina, and SMG needed to borrow from the state and take advantage of NFL grants to make them happen. Early efforts focused on readying the four club lounges and applying finishing touches in the 137 suites, while later projects included the installation of an aluminum outer skin and a state-of-the-art technology infrastructure. In addition to hosting several marquee college athletic events this year, the stadium will welcome Super Bowl XLVII in February - the facility's seventh Super Bowl and its first in the post-Katrina era.
Still, Thornton had his doubts about whether the Superdome would ever reopen. "The place was completely destroyed," he recalls. "All the doors were open, flies were everywhere, human waste, trash, debris from the storm. We weren't sure about the mechanicals and the HVAC, and mold was starting to grow throughout the building. The mold was so bad in some places that you couldn't walk in without it causing breathing problems. So I was worried that we wouldn't be capable of restoring it even if we wanted to."
Then he called the stadium's architectural firm, Ellerbe Becket (now practicing as AECOM), which assembled a team of specialty consultants that eventually determined reconstruction was possible. "In October 2005, [then NFL commissioner] Paul Tagliabue told me, 'Now's your chance to make the Superdome a better place. It can't be the same old Saints in the same old Superdome,' " Thornton says. "And I'm thinking, 'How in the world can we do that? Can't you see what we just went through?' But what he said resonated with me. And it, indeed, is a better place today."
Seven hurricane seasons have come and gone since Katrina unleashed her fury on the Gulf Coast, but the memories are still raw for those who lived through it. Most people will tell you about the smell - "a smell that will stick with me as long as I live," says Tulane's Maitre. "It was just horrendous, like the worst thing you can imagine." For others, details will jar loose the longer you talk with them, and sometimes you can sense the physical and emotional toll.
"If you ask people from the city about the storm, everybody will have a story to tell. And you can see it in their eyes," says Foley, who did not return to her tree-damaged home for almost 30 days, opting to stay at Pelican Park and oversee its rehabilitation.
Perez had evacuated to Houston for the storm and returned to Lakefront Arena within a week. But his first glimpse of the damage done came via television. "The first time I saw the arena was on TV, when I saw someone being rescued by helicopter and they flew over Lakefront Arena," he says. "That's when I saw the holes in the roof. That was awful. I was watching my city underwater."
After the waters receded, "I remember seeing fish skeletons laid out along our intramurals field," Maitre says. "There was so much water on the field that the fish were able to swim on it, and when the water dried up, the fish had nowhere to go."
"This was unprecedented," says Thornton, who stayed in the Superdome with a small staff throughout the storm and until all of its occupants had been evacuated. "There was no manual. We were managing by instinct, and we were isolated from the rest of the world. The thing I remember most is the suffering here by so many people, and the uncertainty of what the outcome was going to be. It was really touch-and-go for a long time. Even though I was part of the leadership team, after three days you begin to wonder, 'Are we going to be able to evacuate these folks, and when? And how long can we keep it going?' The tension, the horror, the suffering, the conditions - it was as bad as you can imagine, times 10."
Today, the resiliency of New Orleans and its surrounding areas has been reinforced by a survey commissioned by the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau earlier this year in which 70 percent of all respondents said their perception of the city has changed in the years since Hurricane Katrina, citing successful recovery and rebuilding efforts. Indeed, with an unprecedented comeback story, local officials say the city is booming. New Orleans currently has more restaurants than before Katrina, and the city this year expects to welcome approximately 900 meetings and conventions - including the Athletic Business Conference & Expo.
"Most of the people going to this convention will see no signs of Hurricane Katrina at all," Foley says. "The city itself is in great shape."
ABC to Debut Two New Events in 2012
Making its debut at this year's Athletic Business Conference & Expo is the iClubs Conference, which will run concurrently with ABC and is designed specifically for independent health club owners battling discount fitness centers, large chains and ever-changing fitness programs.
Attendees will enjoy eight educational sessions presented by professional faculty members with extensive experience in health club management and ownership. Sessions include "Price Wars: You vs. Low Cost Competitors," "Change, Meet the Demand and Evolve Your Club" and "Creating the New Future for Independent Clubs." Attendees also may participate in a workshop presented by the Medical Fitness Association called "How to Differentiate Your Independent Club in a Highly Competitive Marketplace," as well as two networking breakfasts and a networking reception, plus the AB Expo and the ABC Welcome Reception.
Another new addition this year will be a ZumbathonÂ® on Thursday, Nov. 29, to benefit MDA's Augie's Quest. Augie Nieto, co-founder and former president of Life Fitness and current chairman of Octane Fitness, was diagnosed with ALS in March 2005 and founded Augie's Quest - a nonprofit research initiative dedicated to finding treatments and cures for the degenerative disease. The dance-fitness party will be held in Hall C of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and is open to the public. Doors open at 6 p.m., and Zumba begins at 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $40 in advance and $50 at the door.
A Rundown of ABC 2012 Events in The Big Easy
Even though a series of preconference tours and workshops -- including leadership, team-building and design sessions, plus a USA Swimming "Save a Pool" seminar - kick off the Athletic Business Conference & Expo on Wednesday, Nov. 28, events and festivities officially get under way the following day at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center with the first of 81 high-caliber, accredited seminars. The 10 seminar tracks include facility design and construction, aquatic programming and management, military fitness and sports, facility operations and risk management, leadership and personal development, fitness center management, and youth sports. Seminars run through Saturday, Dec. 1.
The International Council on Active Aging, the Medical Fitness Association and the National Alliance for Youth Sports hold their annual conferences in conjunction with ABC, and attendees of those conferences are in full force at ABC events. Additionally, ABC attendees are invited to attend any of the partner-sponsored seminars as part of their registration.
Keynote Peter Guber, an inspiring storyteller, film producer and co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Golden State Warriors, will present "Leading in Uncertain Times - What's Your Story?" on Nov. 29 at 11:45 a.m. True leadership, according to Guber, can create unity among disparate groups, harness resiliency during negativity and turn perspiration into inspiration.
Immediately following Guber's keynote address, the AB Expo will opens its doors for the first of two days during which more than 300 manufacturers, suppliers, architects and consultants from the fitness, recreation, sports, active aging and medical fitness industries will showcase their products and services. The trade show floor will include pavilions dedicated to ABC's event partners, a demo stage where attendees can try out the latest fitness class routines and a basketball court that hosts the annual free-throw contest (benefitting NAYS' Global Gear drive, which provides used sports equipment to underprivileged children).
The Expo hall also is the site of Friday's early-morning workout. Scheduled from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., this opportunity allows attendees to try out state-of-the-art fitness equipment in comfort.
Other highlights include the ABC Welcome Reception on Thursday, Nov. 29, from 8 to 11 p.m. at Generations Hall. Originally built as a sugar refinery in the early 1920s, the facility will host New Orleans-style entertainment and food - including crawfish-stuffed mushrooms, shrimp and grits, and mini muffalettas - while providing time for attendees, speakers and exhibitors to mingle.
On Friday night, Nov. 30, The Foundry Venue will host the Facility of Merit Reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. This event, open to all ABC attendees, will celebrate the architects, consultants and facility operators who received 2012 Facility of Merit Awards from Athletic Business magazine. Authentic New Orleans-style hors d'oeuvres will once again be served as part of this casual networking event.