SMG Senior Vice President Doug Thornton came to Oakland to help manage the effort of hosting and securing events for the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Complex, which includes the O.co Coliseum Stadium and Oracle Arena. Regular readers of this space know that my feeling for how SMG and the Coliseum Authority has handled the sports complex have been negative. But that was before last week and the arrival of Doug Thornton, and for two reasons.
First, in my effort to bring the 2005 Super Bowl to Oakland (the one Jacksonville won the right to host), there were two bright spots from SMG: then-SMG Senior Vice President Glen Mon, and then-SMG Stadium Manager Doug Thornton, who was sent out to Oakland from New Orleans to provide advice during my work period for the City of Oakland, and where I created the Oakland-Alameda County Sports Commission.
Second, Doug Thornton is a modern hero who’s selfless work and dedication saved the Louisiana Superdome from almost certain destruction and rehabilitated it to be the icon of American Culture again, and fitting host the Return Of The Saints to New Orleans. An ESPN Monday Night Football Game played on September 25th, 2006, and seen by 14,999,000, a record for an ESPN-broadcasted Monday Night Football Game, and had the largest audience in prime time for any telecast, on broadcast or cable according to NOLA.com.
It was almost one year before, on Monday night, August 29, 2005, that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans after forming over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005, then grew to become a giant Catagory 3 hurricane that engulfed the Gulf Of Mexico.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf shore in Florida and Texas, it caused significant destruction, but for New Orleans, it destroyed the city.
The giant system of levees, designed to keep Gulf water out of New Orleans and made the land habitable and buildable for decades, failed in dramatic fashion, as walls and waves of water poured into the city.
The resulting combination of rain, wind, water, and now sea water waves put whole neighborhoods underwater – most famously the lower middle to poor Ninth Ward. The levee failure was called “the worst engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”
New Orleanians who were flooded out of their homes looked for any place to stay, and many made a pilgrimage to the Louisiana Superdome. For Doug Thornton, who managed the Superdome, it was the beginning of a horror that would change his life.
Thornton and his wife Denise lived just “a half mile from one the three major levee breeches that occurred, the 17th Street Canal.” When that levee broke, it left the Thornton’s home flooded with 7 feet of water. For a time, they were homeless and eventually moved to Baton Rouge. But for the five days of the first week after Katrina hit, Thornton lived in the Superdome, and the combination of stress, heat, crowding, and stench, along with the still-remaining responsibility of running the facility, caused him to lose 10 pounds in just five days.
Thornton says that “losing 10 pounds in five days was nothing compared to the people who lost families and loved ones.”
Meanwhile the Louisiana Superdome itself was decimated, and 70 percent of the main roof was damaged. Water poured in, causing millions of dollars of damage to the floor, scoreboards, and seats. And then, it was flooded from below as well. “When people ask me how can their be so much money for the damage, I ask them ‘What happens when you lose the roof to your house?’
Thornton was in that damaged place with 30,000 evacuees in what he says was a “very trying circumstance for all of us.”
“No water pressure. No functioning toilets. Very little food and water. Limited medical supplies, and no way out. Didn’t really eat when I was in there. We had virtually no sleep – it was too hot to sleep. We had no air conditioning. Imagine? We lost all of our power systems. The HVAC wasn’t running. We had no way to move any air in the building.
Faced with a decision to go or day, early on, Thornton and his wife made the decision to rebuild their home and to stay in New Orleans and help rebuild the city in the best way they knew how – by starting with The Superdome. “It was a very difficult thing.”
“For those of us who work there (at the Superdome), it was a lifestyle, not a job. We spend so many working days of our life working in that building – six, seven days a week. Weekends. Holidays. Football games. National Championships. Whatever the case. And losing that facility is like losing a loved one. And the best description I can give when I was in there, watching the roof being peeled like an onion by (Hurricane) Katrina. It was like watching a bully beating up your best friend, and not being able to stop it. And when it’s all over, it feels like the building is on life support and is one step away from death.”
But it was the life and the Superdome’s rich history that gave its workers and New Orleanians like Thornton the strength to save it. Thornton can list every major event that has happened at the Superdome from memory, like “Michael Jordan’s last shot to beat Georgetown in 1982 in the NCAA Final Four. Muhammad Ali beating Leon Spinks for the Heavyweight Championship of The World.” And so on.
That building – the Superdome – is the preserve of those memories and Thornton wanted to save it. At the time, the New Orleans Saints wanted a new stadium, and were even threatening to move out of the city. But Thornton wasn’t having that. “We did not want to see this be the final chapter in the Superdome’s history. I felt for personal reasons that I had to try and rebuild my home, and I had to fight to rebuild the Superdome.”
The day Thornton says he had a “glimer” of hope was September 30th 2005. The salvation was that the Saints had already been “beating the drum” for a new stadium or a renovated Superdome, so a “Superdome Master Plan” was already in place – “that was our salvation,” Thornton says. He called the architect, Ellerbe Becket out of Kansas City, who worked on the plan, and asked them to assemble a team of special consultants to evaluate the Superdome for renovation, considering the damage that was done.
It was on that September day that Thornton was told by Ellerbe Becket’s Paul Greesmer, who told him that the building’s structure was in tact (“the bones”) and it could be refurbished – it would cost about $200 million, considering the roof and other damage to the Superdome.
The Superdome would eventually cost $185 million to repair and refurbish.
It reopened on September 25th, 2006, and in accordance with goals and objectives that Thornton and his team had set. Since that amazing day, and a game that saw the New Orleans Saints shock the visiting Atlanta Falcons (a game where it was said the Saints players looked like they were floating on three-feet of air), the Superdome is back in its rightful place as a major American cultural center. A place where things happen.
You can thank Thornton for that.
Doug Thornton In Oakland
I’m personally very happy Thornton is here in Oakland, because he is a symbol of a champion – the kind of person the Coliseum Authority must embrace and understand if only to learn what it means to like people who deeply care about a facility. Like, say, the Oakland Coliseum.
The Coliseum, too, has a great history: the Oakland A’s World Series games. The legendary Raiders games going back to the The Sea Of Hands Game against the Dolphins in 1974. And there’s no reason the Coliseum can’t host a Super Bowl, or an NCAA Final Four game.
But what it takes is not just the persons who believe that, but a culture that doesn’t laugh at them for believing that – too often, over the years, Oakland’s officials have done more laughing than believing, and more political game-playing than economic planning. (And I know that first-hand.) Always saying “We don’t have the money,” rather than asking “How can we get the money?” and plotting more against, rather than for, anyone who wants to go the extra mile to make something happen.
It’s a sad fact.
Doug Thornton’s job is to bring non-major-pro-sports events to the Coliseum that make money for the public, which is represented by the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum Authority and from that SMG takes a fee. For example the Monster Trucks series and the recent Love Evolution event, are two that SMG has brought to the Coliseum, and in the case of “Love,” managed to get it away from AT&T park.
But the real challenge is to build the Coliseum into a place that does host large scale events. It’s a challenge that SMG’s Thornton is well-equipped to handle. What this blogger wants to see is for the Coliseum Authority to work to help make his job easier.
For example, SMG regularly reports to the Coliseum Authority – it’s the JPA’s job to make sure that regular public reports are presented to the Oakland City Council and to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. This has not been done well at all – that must change.
Also, the Coliseum Authority must have a 15-year, events oriented master plan. Not one formed by politicians, as is happening now, but one formed by professional officials and citizens.
Too often the elected officials in Oakland focus on who takes the credit and wage battles on that basis. They can learn from Doug Thornton and the people who rebuilt the Superdome after its most trying moment in history.