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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.
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.
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