Women in Music 2016

Ten Years After Katrina, the Gulf Coast's Music Scene Recovers

Nigel Sawtell / Alamy
Saenger Theatre surrounded in the flood waters after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Three venues tell the story of the region's disaster, relief and ultimate recovery.

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 10 years ago, she inflicted major pain on the touring industry in that region, but a decade later live music in the region is thriving.

The market is on solid footing these days and has, "bounced back very strongly," says veteran promoter Don Fox, founder of New Orleans-based Beaver Productions, whose offices on West Harrison St. in New Orleans were flooded during Katrina. "Now, everybody that is on tour is playing New Orleans. All of the major theaters have reopened and are doing great business."

THE SUPERDOME

Several venues were flooded or nearly destroyed by Katrina, but none are more symbolic of both the misery Katrina brought, nor the resiliency of those left in its wake, than the Mercedes Benz (commonly known as Louisiana) Superdome. The Superdome was only meant to play a small role in the Katrina saga by hosting 850 special needs hospital patients, but was designated a "refuge of last resort" by public officials the day before Katrina hit. When the city flooded, 14,000 people piled into the Superdome. That number doubled over the next two days when the levees were breached, submerging New Orleans. Stranded citizens were brought in by helicopters, boats, and high-water vehicles from rooftops or wherever they were stranded, and the Superdome became the focal point of Katrina.

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Eighteen "essential" SMG employees, backed up by total of 225 staffers (and their families) from SMG and concessionaire Centerplate, also sought refuge at the Superdome and were pressed into service, along with about 375 National Guardsmen. Given some 2,500 personnel work a typical event at the Superdome, home of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the crowd management ratio was completely out of whack. As power went out, 70 percent of the Superdome roof was lost, and water poured into "every nook and cranny of the building," evacuees were faced with no functioning toilets, no HVAC, massive mold growth, no trash removal, and rapidly deteriorating conditions.

A million stories emerged from those five days in the Superdome, and while Thornton says, "many of the stories you heard were probably over-embellished," he admits, "any time you put 30,000 people in a building with conditions as bad as we had here, for that many days, obviously there’s going to be a lot of anxiety, fear, and things you would not want to have happen."

With only limited resources and diminished capacity for security, competition for food and space was high. "You had a social class structure beginning to form…where the strong were preying on the weak, stealing from the disadvantaged. People were breaking into and occupying the suites, drinking the liquor, and having their way, there was no way to police all of that entirely," Thornton recalls. "Most of these folks were just plain, hard-working citizens with their families. But, then you had others who were coming from different walks of life. You had gang members, you had homeless people on the street, you had a cross-section of people thrust into a situation where they were trying to survive. Conditions were just wretched. I would say we did the best that we could under the circumstances, and we may never know all the things that happened."

Six people died in the Superdome in the wake of Katrina, four of natural causes, one from an overdose, and one an apparent suicide. When the refugees were evacuated from the building by Thursday, projections estimated $200 million to return the Superdome to operation. That far exceeded insurance and FEMA, and many thought that the Superdome would never return.

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Thornton says the Governor, along with the National Football League (which chipped in $15 million) understood the significance of a speedy Superdome resurrection from both a symbolic and economic standpoint. "As soon as we could turn the roof white again, people were going to believe the recovery was going to happen," he says. "The Superdome was the most visible symbol of the misery and suffering of Katrina, so it made sense that, if you could fix this building, it would inspire hope."

Fix it they did, and by Sept. 26, 2006, at a cost of $185 million to get it "football ready," the Saints were playing in the Superdome again. Later repairs took the total cost to $225 in post-Katrina work on the Superdome, including a $96 million repair on the 9.6 acre roof. The adjacent New Orleans Arena opened earlier, with a sold-out Tim McGraw/Faith Hill show the previous July, followed by a sold-out Kenny Chesney date, which Thornton called "our first indications that this market was going to punch above its weight."

Powered by booms in technology, medical and downtown real estate, the New Orleans market has been "incredibly resilient," for sports and entertainment, with  "an unprecedented number of large events," Thornton says. "You can’t say enough about the Gulf South region, and the resiliency of the people, the economy, the facilities. This was chance to make the Superdome a better place but also a chance to reset the dial for New Orleans, repair our school system, our hotels, our hospitals. This has to be one of the greatest comeback stories in American history, and the people of New Orleans deserve the credit. They’re the ones that came back, fought the fight, when others said they should quit. The city had to die to be reborn."

THE SAENGER

The road to recovery was a long one for the historic Saenger Theatre, a 2,800-capacity show palace on the Big Easy’s Canal Street. The Saenger, which opened in 1927, suffered four feet of water on its orchestra level and a completely flooded basement housing all mechanical, electrical and HVAC systems. Following a lengthy process, the city structured a tax deal that funded a $53 million rehab (the electrical/HVAC is now above grade) with the goal to, "refurbish the building to exactly the way it looked when it opened in 1927," says GM David Skinner. That included the daunting two-year task of recreating the venue’s intricate painting scheme that created biggest challenge, a project that took itself took two years. Finally, the Saenger came back online in December of 2013 with three sellouts from Jerry Seinfeld (who returns in November).

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ACE also operates the city-owned Mahalia Jackson Theatre five blocks away, also severely damaged by Katrina. The city spent $23 million rebuilding that 2,300-cap venue and, in their second lives, "both venues are extremely busy," according to Skinner, who credits a shift in the demographics of New Orleans for the venues’ success. The Saenger is tops in the nation in subscriptions for the Broadway Across America series, is so strong it’s No. 1 market for Broadway Across America, never the case before Katrina. The Saenger now hosts 40-50 concerts annually, and the Jackson, home of the New Orleans Opera and Ballet associations, another 10-15 concerts. "Both venues have recovered nicely and are busier than they’ve ever been. The demographics have changed a great deal, people are coming back with disposable income, which works well for us."

THE MISSISSIPPI COAST COLISEUM & CONVENTION CENTER

While New Orleans received most of the attention as historic flooding of a major U.S. city, Katrina actually made landfall just to the West of Biloxi, Miss., in tiny Waveland on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005. Biloxi is home to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center, which sits just across the Highway 90 from the Gulf, not an enviable position in hurricane season.

While the MCC implemented its normal hurricane prep, Katrina was anything but normal. "What we didn’t know was how much storm surge Katrina would generate," says Matt McDonnell, then assistant director for the complex and now executive director. "We’re 20 feet above sea level, and we had 27-and-a-half feet of storm surge, so seven-and-a-half feet of water got into the building, and that does a lot of damage to everything it touches."

At a cost of $27 million, funded through insurance, FEMA, and a previously approved bond issue for a new convention center, the MCC was about to double its convention space, renovate the existing space, and repair all damages. "As bad as Katrina was for so many people," McDonnell notes, "it helped us get our facility back in a real good position."

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The building was offline for 10 months, re-opening in July of 2006 with 3 Doors Down/Lynyrd Skynyrd, which sold out and actually sold out of beer for the first time in the history of the venue. Clearly, the people of the region were ready for a good time. "Down here, the routine was just work, clean, and repair, work clean, and repair, repeat, for so many months that it took just a little imagination and creativity to get people out to have a little fun," says McDonnell.

"It was awesome to go back down there and play," says Brad Arnold of 3DD, which hails from nearby Escatawpa, Miss. Told the Coliseum ran out of beer that night, he says, "I bet they did. There was a few people there that was good and ready for a cold one."

Spurred by a massive federal cash infusion, first following Katrina and then the BP Oil spill disaster, the economy on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has bounced back. The population is back to pre-Katrina levels, and the burgeoning gaming industry has been reinvigorated. And, beyond the challenges of being a small market venue, the Coliseum is hanging strong. "It took awhile to get people convinced market would sustain, but last year was the best year we’ve had in the arena and convention center since the storm," says McDonnell. "We could always use more, but we continue to do well with the shows we are getting."

While "Katrina was really hard on that coast," Arnold says, "those are the only people I can think of that could handle something like that, and they did. They’ve really come back down there. [Katrina] completely changed the face of the coast, a lot of things are better and a lot of things are lost. Those are incredibly resilient people down there, and I couldn’t be more proud of them."

Waveland specifically was hammered by Katrina, and 3DD’s Better Life Foundation helped by purchasing three police cars and a fire truck to help with rescue efforts and supported rebuilding efforts for the area. With Wal-Mart, the BLF shipped down three semi-trucks full of supplies. "There was so much to be done there, I don’t know if we even put a dent in it," Arnold says. "It was the least we could do."

This article appears in the Sep. 5 issue of Billboard.