How Strong is the Louisiana Superdome Roof?

The Hurricane versus The Superdome Roof

Aerial photo, roof of the New Orleans Superdome stadium
An aerial view of Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, April 2010. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images ©2010 Getty Images

In August 2005, the Louisiana Superdome became a shelter of last resort as Hurricane Katrina set sights on New Orleans. Although 30 years old and built in a floodplain, the structure stood firm and saved the lives of thousands of people. How strong IS the Louisiana Superdome?

Building the Superdome:

The Louisiana Superdome is a public/private New Orleans sports arena designed by New Orleans native Nathaniel "Buster" Curtis of Curtis & Davis and Associated Architects.

The contractors were Huber, Hunt & Nichols.

Many sports stadia, like the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, have playing fields below ground level, which allows the building's height to be modest on the outside. Not so for the Superdome. Because of a high water table, the arena in New Orleans is built on a platform atop a three-story underground parking garage. Thousands of concrete pilings hold the steel frame exterior, with an additional "tension ring" to hold the weight of the enormous domed roof.  The diamond-shaped steel framework of the dome was placed onto the ring support all in one piece. Nathaniel Curtis writes:

"This ring, capable of withstanding the massive thrusts of the dome structure, is made of 1-1/2-inch thick steel and prefabricated in twenty-four sections that were welded together 469 feet in the air. Because the strength of the welds is critical to the strength of the tension ring, they were performed by a specially trained and qualified welder in the semi-controlled atmosphere of a tent house which was moved around the rim of the building from one weld to another. Each individual weld was x-rayed to insure the perfection of the vital joints. On 12 June 1973, the entire roof, weighing 5,000 tons, was jacked down onto the tension ring in one of the most delicate and critical operations of the whole construction process."—Curtis, 2002

The Superdome Roof:

The roof is nearly 10 acres in area. The Superdome has been described as the world's largest domed structure in the world (measuring the interior floor area). Fixed dome construction fell from popularity in the 1990s, and several other domed stadiums have closed. The 1975 Superdome has survived its engineering.

  "The Superdome's roof system consists of 18-gauge sheet-steel panels laid down over the structural steel," writes architect Curtis. "On top of this is polyurethane foam one inch thick, and finally, a sprayed-on layer of hypalon plastic."

Hypalon® was a state-of-the-art weatherproofing rubber material by Dupont. Cranes and helicopters helped place the steel panels in place, and it took another162 days to spray on the Hypalon coating.

The Louisiana Superdome was designed to resist winds up to 200 miles per hour. However, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina's 145 mph winds blew away two sections of Superdome roof while more than 10,000 people sought shelter inside. Although many hurricane victims were very scared, the architecture remained structurally sound in part because of a 75-ton media center hanging from the roof's interior. This gondola of televisions acted as a counterweight, keeping the roof in place during the storm.

Although people got wet and the roof needed repair, the Superdome remained structurally sound. Many victims of the hurricane were transported to Reliant Park in Houston, Texas for temporary shelter in the Astrodome. The retractable roof of Reliant Stadium was similarly damaged in 2008 by Hurricane Ike.

Facts About the Superdome:

  • Construction began: August 11, 1971
  • Opened: August 1975
  • Land space: 52 acres (210,000 square meters)
  • Area of roof: 9.7 acres (440,000 square feet)
  • Height: 273 feet (82.3 meters)
  • Dome diameter: of 680 feet (210 meters)
  • Main arena floor: 162,434 square feet
  • Maximum seating: 73,208
  • UBU synthetic turf: 60,000 square feet
  • Construction cost (1971-1975): $134 million
  • Post-Katrina renovations and enhancements: $336 million
  • Host of more Super Bowls than any other stadium: XII, XV, XX, XXIV, XXXI, XXXVI, and XLVII
  • Name: Mercedes-Benz Superdome as of October 4, 2011

The Superdome Reborn

Soon after Hurricane Katrina victims left the shelter of the Louisiana Superdome, the roof damage was repaired and the facility reopened as the home of the New Orleans Saints. Led by Ellerbe Becket, thousands of tons of debris were removed and several upgrades were made to ensure that the Superdome would remain one of the most advanced sports facilities in the United States.

"Never in the history of US stadiums has a facility been so heavily damaged and rebuilt so quickly," claims the Ellerbe Becket website. "One of the keys to success was that Ellerbe Becket had a long-term relationship with SMG [venue management] and the Superdome Commission and had been working pre-Katrina on plans to enhance the building to keep it current with NFL stadium trends. The result is a Superdome that is better than ever."

Learn More:

  • NFL, state discuss Superdome damage from Hurricane Katrina by Bloomberg News and The Associated Press, Seattle Times, August 31, 2005
  • National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (OMB No. 1024-0018) prepared by Phil Boggan, State Historic Preservation Officer, December 7, 2015 (PDF)
  • Superdome, Super Roof: Iconic Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans Sports Its Brightest Look Yet by Kim Bistromowitz and Jon Henson, Roofing Contractor, February 9, 2015

Sources: My Life In Modern Architecture by Nathaniel Curtis, FAIA, The University of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2002, pp. 40, 43 [accessed May 1, 2016]; Super Bowl Press Kit Feb. 3, 2013, www.superdome.com/uploads/SUPERDOMEMEDIAKIT_12113_SB.pdf [accessed January 27, 2013]; AECOM Ellerbe Becket at www.ellerbebecket.com/expertise/project/2_258/Louisiana_Superdome_Renovation.html [accessed August 26, 2012]