Doug Thornton was worried when he went to meet then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Oct. 11, 2005.
It was six weeks after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans, ripping off 75 percent of the Superdome’s roof and leaving mold and decay everywhere in the stadium. The Saints were now playing their “home” games in San Antonio.
The team might never return to New Orleans if the governor didn’t authorize the complete renovation of the facility, warned Thornton, who then and now oversees the Superdome for a private management company, SMG.
But Blanco’s staff told her she would take a hit politically if she greenlighted the renovation of a football stadium at a time when most New Orleans residents remained displaced, businesses were shuttered and the city could not provide basic services.
“She said, ‘We’ve got to do it. It’s an inspiration’ ” to the area's residents, Thornton remembered in an interview Sunday. “And getting the Saints back is so vital to the economy.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards and Saints owner Gayle Benson honored Blanco at a short ceremony Sunday at what is now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before the Saints-Eagles playoff game.
“She had the vision and the courage to say that investing that money in the Superdome was the right thing for the state of Louisiana, was the right thing for the city of New Orleans,” Edwards said, “so they could have their confidence restored.”
Said Blanco during brief remarks, “I said, ‘Not on my watch will we lose the Saints.’ ”
Minutes later, Edwards, Benson and others posed with Blanco by a plaque at the entrance to Gate A, just off Poydras Street, that commemorates her role in the reopening of the Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006.
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The renovation cost $225 million, with FEMA covering $178 million of the bill.
Edwards recalled that the Saints defeated the Atlanta Falcons when the Superdome reopened, in a game marked by Steve Gleason blocking an Atlanta punt early in the game for a Saints touchdown.
“Since that day, no one has second-guessed that decision that she made all by herself 11 months earlier,” Edwards said.
Thornton said Blanco made another key decision that allowed the Superdome to reopen with the Saints. That occurred in December 2005 after NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had visited New Orleans and emphasized the need to reopen the stadium for the following season.
Blanco, Thornton said, signed an authorization allowing the project's redesign and reconstruction to occur simultaneously.
“She never has gotten the credit she deserved,” Thornton said.
Blanco, 76, clearly appreciated the recognition on Sunday for her work more than a decade ago. But it comes at a difficult time, when she has revealed that she suffers from a rare type of liver cancer that has spread. She may have only months to live.
Perhaps as a result, she is getting recognition now for decisions she made as governor that were not always well-received at the time.
There have been good days and bad days lately for former Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.
The immediate aftermath of Katrina destroyed her political career.
Until that point, she was a popular first-term governor. After Katrina, she was seen as being “weak” and “overwhelmed,” according to critics at the time. Facing certain defeat, she did not seek re-election in 2007.
Journalist Jed Horne, in his book on Katrina, “Breach of Faith,” concluded that while Blanco made mistakes, she mostly didn’t manage the public relations effort adroitly enough.
Horne noted that one instance occurred within 36 hours of Katrina’s onslaught. Blanco flew by helicopter from Baton Rouge to the Superdome, accompanied only by her husband, Raymond. Reporters were clamoring to get there. Thousands of evacuees camped inside the stadium were suffering from a lack of food, water and medical attention.
But Blanco had told Andy Kopplin, her chief of staff, that flying in reporters on State Police helicopters would divert resources needed to rescue people in distress.
Amid the chaos at the Superdome that day, Blanco hugged and encouraged evacuees, telling them that help would be coming.
“The opportunity to have demonstrated her own personal touch with thousands of people who were at their greatest moment of need and were receiving comfort from their governor would have made a huge impact in terms of the visual (perception) of her leadership,” Kopplin said in an interview on Sunday. “But fewer people would have been rescued that day. Her decision was true to her personality and true to her leadership.”