11/21/2006 12:00AM

Track back on its feet

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NEW ORLEANS - Nicole Ario and Lamont Thompson, Fair Grounds security officers, rode out Hurricane Katrina at the racetrack. Someone had to be there when the storm subsided, and they volunteered. The hurricane hit on a Monday. Flying debris, pieces of the racetrack itself, crashed in the wind. Tuesday, the floods came.

"We saw the water start coming down the street, rising really fast just like in a movie," Thompson recalled.

When it had crested, much of the backstretch and the racing surface were submerged. A section of grandstand roof had been sheared off by wind, leaving the fourth and fifth floors exposed. Fair Grounds was a total mess.

And no one has overseen its revival more closely than track president Randy Soth, who signed on as a racing executive and wound up as a construction guru.

"It's been an unbelievable couple years," Soth said.

Soth was in Florida when Katrina struck, but returned to Fair Grounds as soon as he could. "Up here in the building it was really bizarre to look and see nothing but sky, shreds of metal roof, and hanging pieces of sheet rock," Soth said.

The south side of the track's property sits on high ground, so the New Orleans fire department and three units of National Guardsmen used the track as a staging area. Once the human crises eased, thoughts turned to rebuilding.

It has taken 15 months and $16 million in insurance money to fix Fair Grounds; Soth and Brice Contractors have overseen a massive juggling act. A new grandstand roof was required before power could be restored to the main building. Damaged 600-pound glass panels in the facade had to be replaced with slabs imported from England. To ready the property for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April, the land had to be deemed nontoxic, which called for soil samples and analysis. The entire infield would need to be re-landscaped, while 90,000 pounds of granulated gypsum were required to desalinate the ground. The dirt in shed rows and stalls did not seem contaminated, but got replaced anyway - about 1 1/2 tons per barn. Jazz Fest went off fine, but 28 barns still needed roof repairs, new plywood nailed to stall walls, and the racing surfaces readied for the meet. Power had been restored to the grandstand in the spring, but most of the backstretch required rewiring. The infield tote board needed an electric overhaul. To say nothing of all the trashed contents that had to be hauled out of the grandstand, the dead fish left behind when the floodwaters receded.

"We saw this place come apart, and we saw them put it back together," Lamont Thompson said.