Repairs to Reliant Stadium roof nearing completion

HOUSTON -- The retractable roof at Reliant Stadium is repaired and fully operational, five months after Hurricane Ike ripped huge holes in the top of one of this city's signature structures.

Mark Miller, the general manager of Reliant Park, said Friday that the five bow-tie shaped fabric panels destroyed in the storm have been replaced and all that's left for workers is to plug water leaks.

Miller said the project will be done by next week, in plenty of time for the stadium's biggest event -- the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which runs March 3-22.

"We're in the final stages of making all the panel connections watertight," Miller said. "The fabric's all installed."

David J. Phillip / Associated Press
Houston's Reliant Stadium was damaged during Hurricane Ike on Sept. 13, 2008.

Hurricane Ike roared ashore in the early hours of Sept. 13, packing sustained winds of 110 mph. The storm killed dozens of people, caused widespread damage and knocked out power to millions. The force of winds that blasted the stadium were never accurately measured, Miller said, because weather meters on the roof were lost in the storm.

"We didn't get good readings, but we know there were Category-2 winds in the area," Miller said.

The home of the NFL's Houston Texans cost $354 million to build and was the first NFL venue with a retractable roof when it opened in 2002. The Texans' media guide claims the roof "can withstand winds as strong as 140 miles per hour when closed and secured."

Miller said the stadium responded exactly as expected.

"The fabric is designed to, before anything pulls too hard on that steel, give way," he said. "That's the key point -- it did what it was supposed to do and didn't let the actual structure get damaged."

The roof cost $4 million to fix, part of a $10 million price tag on all the repairs. They were financed by insurance and a combination of county and federal funds. The stadium is owned by Harris County, but the county was eligible to seek funds from FEMA for up to 75 percent of the repair cost.

In the days after the storm, engineers examined the stadium down to every bolt and light bulb. Below the roof, damage was only cosmetic -- broken windows, unhinged doors and minor flooding. The gears of the roof mechanism, which opens and closes the roll-top panels, still worked.

The storm snapped off three of four lightning arrestor poles affixed at the four corners of the stadium. The aluminum poles, designed to lower the building's potential for a lightning strike, are like those commonly used on skyscrapers.

"It's a hurricane. It happens," Miller said. "There's a lot of stuff flying around out there."

Most debris was found nearby. The biggest pieces simply fell into the stadium; others blew up against the Astrodome, the now-dwarfed nearby arena. Once the roof repair work is complete, Miller said engineers will lay out the damaged pieces and analyze how they reacted to the storm.

"You have to really wait to get the full, final assessment on what everybody thinks happened, where you can really start talking about lessons learned," Miller said.

The storm forced the Texans to move their home opener with Baltimore to November, and the team played its full home schedule with the roof open. Miller said the roof wasn't closed during games because engineers were concerned that strong winds whipping through the gaps could cause more damage and potentially injure those inside.

The roof panels are made of poly-tetrafluoroethylene, a Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric. The elastic, weather-resistant material also shapes the roofs at the Denver International Airport, the Millennium Dome in England and Navy Pier in Chicago.

Miller said the material feels like the rubbery plastic used for lawn chairs. It's also opaque enough to let filtered sunlight through, allowing natural grass to grow inside the stadium.

The pieces of the fabric at Reliant measure 325 feet long and each weighs more than 4,000 pounds. The ones torn off were too damaged to be put back, so new strips were manufactured.

Normally, the roof opens and closes along two parallel rails that sit on giant steel supertrusses that run the length of the stadium, 675 feet long. The roof itself is supported by 10 tri-chord trusses that sit atop the rails.

As the roof pieces were being made, workers dangled from harnesses about 200 feet above the field and set up a spider web of straps underneath the damaged roof.

"They're all incredibly agile, like mountain climbers," Miller said. "You will literally see guys rappelling out in the middle of nothing, holding wrenches and welding stuff. These guys are trained professionals."

When the new pieces arrived, helicopters hoisted them to the top of the stadium and dropped them onto the webbing. Workers then carefully unfolded the fabric and fastened the pieces to the metal skeleton.

The roof was rebuilt according to its original specifications, but Miller wouldn't rule out minor adjustments to the design in the future to make it more resistant to a hurricane.

"If the ongoing investigations reveal a need for additional modifications, they will be addressed at that time," Miller said.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press