Keith O'Brien for NPR
Rene Lopez and Devin Burrell blast dirt off the polyurethane coating the iconic white roof of the Superdome in New Orleans. The job will cost about $130,000 and take roughly a month, partly because the roofers must move slowly. "You have to constantly be aware of where you're at," says project manager Tom Keller. "If something stupid happens, it's not going to end up pretty."
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.
David J. Phillip/AP
The Louisiana Superdome plays an iconic role in the skyline—and heart—of New Orleans.
The Louisiana Superdome plays an iconic role in the skyline—and heart—of New Orleans. David J. Phillip/AP
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."
Keith O'Brien for NPR
Keller helped rebuild the damaged roof of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. "It's not just a roof," he says. "This is the Superdome. It's probably the most infamous roof, and now famous roof, in the whole world."
Keller helped rebuild the damaged roof of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. "It's not just a roof," he says. "This is the Superdome. It's probably the most infamous roof, and now famous roof, in the whole world." Keith O'Brien for NPR
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.
Keith O'Brien for NPR
As the roofers get to the top, they literally straddle the void, swinging their bodies from the ladder to the roof over a small but frightening gap.
As the roofers get to the top, they literally straddle the void, swinging their bodies from the ladder to the roof over a small but frightening gap. Keith O'Brien for NPR
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.