No Roof Rookies Here: Cleaning The Superdome

Oct 18, 2012
Originally published on October 19, 2012 1:42 am

Most people have their route to work memorized; they can do it with their eyes closed. Heading into the office is some combination of elevators — stairs if you're more ambitious — and hallways. Easy.

Tom Keller's route is a bit more complicated.

"Step here, and there's a bad railing right here with a step," Keller cautions, threading his way up along a series of dimly lit, narrow catwalks suspended above the football field inside the New Orleans Superdome.

The stadium is home to the New Orleans Saints and will host this year's Super Bowl.

There's just one problem: The white roof of the massive dome has been dirty of late, streaked with mildew, which means it's time to call the roofers.

That's Keller's job. He and his team usually climb the Superdome to clean off the roof once a year.

On his way to work, Keller also has to avoid hazards along the way, like steel beams right at eye level. For those who are squeamish about heights, he says, it's probably best not to look down once you get up to the lights.

"This is where people start realizing they're getting up pretty high," Keller says.

By high, Keller means about 30 stories up, which to him is nothing. As project manager of the roofing company Brazos Urethane, Keller is at home in the skies of New Orleans.

Not Just A Stadium

Cleaning the Superdome is no small job. The building is 10 acres around, looks like a mushroom, and dominates both the skyline — and the heart — of New Orleans.

The Superdome isn't just another stadium. It's an iconic structure and a beloved symbol of civic pride, especially since Hurricane Katrina. It was the shelter of last resort during the storm seven years ago, and a scene of human suffering for days. But the Superdome has been born again — it's just a bit grubby.

"We always refer to this as the Mount Everest of roofs," Keller says. "It's like cleaning a mountain. It's a lot more difficult than what everybody thinks. They think you hook up water, you squirt it off, and you move. It's not that easy at all."

Doug Thornton, senior vice president of SMG, the company that manages the Superdome, says that as the roof ages, tiny cracks are forming, trapping dirt and dew.

"I drive in every day and it just breaks my heart to see that dirt up there," says Thornton. "I can't stand it."

Keller has had to go up to clean the roof twice this year. It's a four-week task rife with complications.

The job begins with about six power washers pumping water through more than 3,000 feet of hose snaking up the roof.

Once there, the roofers who blast away at the dirt are secured by ropes, which inevitably get tangled.

And then there's the little issue of lightning.

"That's the only thing we're afraid of up here: lightning," Keller says. "Nothing else bothers us. Lightning? We're not people. Now we're lightning rods. So we respect lightning big time."

Other than that, Keller says, fear isn't really a factor. It can't be in this line of work.

"If fear comes into it, you can't work here," Keller says.

The Final Stretch

For the uninitiated — the roof rookies — the fear starts on the catwalks and with the delicate dance it takes to get around the light rings.

At the end of the journey, it gets even more harrowing as you realize the only thing separating you from a 300-foot fall is a railing and your own confidence that, no, you're not going to trip or stumble.

Then it's up a ladder to a hatch on the roof. It's a tricky final couple of steps, but Keller is nothing but encouraging.

"All right, now we're going to go see a view of New Orleans that not too many people see," Keller says. "And it's beautiful."

The final stretch is just 20 feet or so, but it's about the most horrifying 20 feet you could ever imagine. At the top of the ladder, you have to straddle the void between the ladder and the roof, high above the football field. And if you were to fall just so, it's potentially a long fall to your death.

"Slowly and carefully," Keller says.

Finally, mercifully, you're on the roof.

"Look, New Orleans is beautiful!" Keller says, giddy at the sight of it.

Down below, some commuters are happy about what they're seeing, too. There are tiny men on the roof of the Superdome, washing away the grime of New Orleans.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The Superdome in New Orleans is not just another stadium. It's a beloved symbol of civic pride, especially since Hurricane Katrina. Seven years ago, the Superdome served as a shelter of last resort during the storm, and it became a scene of human suffering. But the stadium has been restored. And these days, it once again hosts Saints football games and the upcoming Super Bowl. There's just one problem. The dome's white roof is dirty, streaked with mildew. As Keith O'Brien reports from New Orleans, that means it's time to call the roofers.

KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: Tom Keller is headed to his office, taking his usual route.

TOM KELLER: Step here and there is a bad railing right here with a step.

O'BRIEN: He's going up, threading his way along a series of dimly lit, narrow catwalks suspended above the football field inside the Superdome. There are hazards along the way, like steel beams at eye level. Oh. And when you reach the lights, don't look down.

KELLER: OK, you're at the first light ring here, and this is where people start realizing they're getting up pretty high.

O'BRIEN: By high, Keller means about 30 stories up, which to him is nothing. As project manager for the roofing company Brazos Urethane, Keller is at home in the skies of New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

O'BRIEN: Still, cleaning the Superdome isn't your typical job. The building is nearly 10 acres round. It looks like a mushroom and dominates both the skyline and the heart of New Orleans.

KELLER: We always refer to this as the Mount Everest of roofs, so I'll go along with that. It's like cleaning a mountain. It's a lot more difficult than what everybody thinks. They think you hook up water. You squirt it off, and you move. It's not that easy at all.

O'BRIEN: But here's the thing: Someone has to go up there.

DOUG THORNTON: I drive in every day, and it just breaks my heart to see that dirt up there. I can't stand it.

O'BRIEN: Doug Thornton is a senior vice president of SMG, the company that manages the Superdome. As the roof ages, Thornton says, tiny cracks are forming, trapping dirt and dew, which has forced Keller to clean the roof twice this year, a four-week job with inherent complications.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

O'BRIEN: The job begins with about six power washers pumping water through more than 3,000 feet of hose snaking up the roof. Once there, the roofers blast away at the dirt while being secured by ropes, which inevitably get tangled. And then there's the little issue of lightning.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLER: That's the only thing were afraid of up here: lightning. Nothing else bothers us. Lightning? We're not people. We're lightning rods. So we respect lightning big time. Other than that, fear doesn't come into it. If fear comes into it, you can't work here.

O'BRIEN: But for the uninitiated - the roof rookies - the fear sets in on the catwalks. It's a delicate dance around those light rings, but it's harrowing at the top, where the only thing separating you from a 300-foot fall is a railing and your own self-confidence that, no, you're not going to trip or stumble.

KELLER: All right. Now, we're going to go see a view of New Orleans not too many people see, and it's beautiful.

O'BRIEN: We climb a ladder to a hatch on the roof. It's a tricky final couple of steps. At the top, you have to straddle the void, between the ladder and the roof, high above the football field. And if you were to fall just so, it's potentially a long fall, like to your death.

KELLER: How do you get out right here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Slowly and carefully.

O'BRIEN: The final stretch is just 20 feet or so, but it's about the most horrifying 20 feet you could ever imagine. Until finally, mercifully, you're on the roof.

KELLER: Take it easy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, my...

KELLER: You're fine. Look, New Orleans is beautiful.

O'BRIEN: Keller is giddy at the sight of it. And down below, some commuters are happy about what they're seeing too. There are tiny men on the roof of the Superdome, washing away the grime of New Orleans. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.