NEW ORLEANS -- Doug Thornton, a senior official with the management company that runs the Superdome, slept in his office for the first five nights after Hurricane Katrina struck. He said he remembers sitting at a table in that office, located just inside Gate F, and talking to members of his staff about how the damaged building might never reopen, about how so many people would move on and never would return to New Orleans. He recalled getting into a helicopter bound for Baton Rouge, La., on the fifth day after the storm hit, looking back over his shoulder at the dome with its roof ripped off, and thinking to himself, "I'll never be back."
But he is, and a panoramic picture of the Saints' first game in the repaired dome in 2006 was displayed nearby as he spoke in his office Tuesday. "There was great doubt in my mind about the future of the city, much less the 'dome, much less if there would be a market," Thornton said. "It was like: Where do you start? No way I thought we'd be in this spot four years later. The power of the human spirit is remarkable. ... We're not there yet. There are still streets to fix, schools to build, hospitals to be built. There's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built. It's progressing. It's on its way.
"This was such a unique disaster. There's never been anything like it in our country. There are no benchmarks to measure this by. In some areas, we're ahead of where we thought we would be. In some areas, we're behind. Where we're behind is rebuilding some neighborhoods. ... Where we're ahead of pace is the hospitality sector, and that includes sports."
Taxi driver Audrey Wilson said there is optimism even in those places in the city where the pace of the rebuilding is modest. One level of her home had to be rebuilt and she spent four months in Baton Rouge after Katrina, she said. Her sister's nearby house has not yet been rebuilt, she said.
"It's slow progress," Wilson said. "It's a long way off. Places like the Lower Ninth Ward, there's so much work to be done. It'll be years. But we'll get back. It'll be just like it was here before Katrina. You'll see. It'll just take years."
The city has a larger number of restaurants than it did before Katrina struck. Only one hotel, the Hyatt Regency, which was attached to a mall and the Superdome, has not yet reopened, Thornton said. According to tourism officials, New Orleans hosted 7.6 million visitors in 2008, and those visitors spent $5.1 billion, compared with a record 10 million visitors and $5 billion in spending in 2004, pre-Katrina.