NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Saints right tackle Zach Strief recalls sadness consuming him when he saw the Superdome go dark during the Super Bowl.
Strief had settled permanently in New Orleans since being drafted by the Saints in 2006 — less than a year after Hurricane Katrina — and he understood the central role the rebuilt stadium had played in the city's regrowth.
"I didn't want the blackout to reflect negatively on the city," Strief said, "especially after having seen how amazing it was here for the week leading up" to the game.
During the months between the dark side of the Super Bowl and the dawn of a new NFL season, the 38-year-old stadium has undergone scrutiny and about $1.5 million in electrical upgrades in an effort to ensure the lights stay on for the Saints home opener this Sunday and every game thereafter.
As it turned out, experts say nothing in the dome was to blame for the blackout that caused a 34-minute delay during the third quarter of last season's championship between Baltimore and San Francisco. The culprit, according to third-party study by Palmer Engineering & Forensics, was a relay device — similar to an industrial-size circuit breaker — that was not only defective but also installed improperly for the local power company, Entergy.
Doug Thornton, an executive with SMG, which manages the state-owned Superdome, said the power loss on one side of the stadium was similar to what might happen if someone was simultaneously operating a toaster and microwave oven from the same outlet in a kitchen and the circuit flipped, only on a much larger scale.
Superdome and power company officials were able to figure out the problem and identify a solution in a matter of minutes, Thornton said, but the process of shutting down and essentially rebooting sophisticated video and audio equipment accounted for the bulk of the delay.
Ironically, the device that malfunctioned was meant to prevent a loss of power to the dome and has since been taken out of service, said Entergy-New Orleans President Charles Rice.
"The relay device that failed was originally intended to provide a third layer of redundant protection for the Superdome's equipment," Rice said in a written statement provided to The Associated Press. "It was not necessary for the operation of either Entergy's or the Superdome's system. In other words, taking the relay out of service does not affect how power is provided to the Superdome."
Indeed, before the device had been installed, the Superdome had hosted seven full Saints seasons since its post-Katrina renovation, as well as two college football BCS championships, an NCAA Final Four, and many other events — all without any problems. Thornton also noted that the Superdome was drawing less power for the Super Bowl than a typical early season Saints game because the air conditioning demands were far lower.
Still, Thornton suspects that use of the air conditioning system after the halftime show — not to cool the stadium, but to circulate smoke accompanying Beyoncé's performance out of the building — pushed the level of power drawn by the stadium high enough to set off the malfunctioning device.
"We'd never had anything like this happen before to my knowledge," Thornton said. "You can never predict mechanical failure, but I can tell you that we have examined the electrical system in here thoroughly and we have replaced any aged equipment that would be used to turn the lights on, so we have a reasonable expectation that it's going to function as it always has."
The NFL does not appear concerned. The league referred comment on the matter to the Saints, and team spokesman Greg Bensel said, "We have played two games there in the preseason and we have had no issues."
New Orleans needs the stadium to function well ahead of plans to bid on the 2018 Super Bowl. The bid specifications go out this October, with a decision expected next spring.
"There is competition for these events and certainly people have to have confidence in the facility, and that was one of our big concerns coming out of this power outage," Thornton said. "We wanted to make it clear that the Superdome was safe, functional and it didn't malfunction. It was a faulty relay device that was improperly set off premises. We just had to deal with the problem."
Meanwhile, Saints players such as Strief are eager to play games in their home stadium, where they've made a number of special memories in the past seven seasons.
"Having been in the dome for the reopening gives a little perspective on what that structure means here," Strief said. "To see it not only come back and reopen, but to see it better than it's ever been before has been neat to see.
"That building is a lot like New Orleans' citizens — tough, resilient, full of life. I'm blessed to have spent so many Sundays in there."