Looking back at Katrina and football

Baltimore Ravens defenders  Kelly Gregg (97) and  Jarret Johnson (95) rush New Orleans  quarterback Aaron Brooks  a pre-season game  August 26, 2005 in New Orleans.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

What follows below is a story I have told many times in the last five years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, with a pair of postscripts. It’s a story of how life and sports intersect.

Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, the Baltimore Ravens made their way to New Orleans to play the Saints in the Louisiana Superdome. At the time, I was the director of new media for the Saints in charge of their web site and a Baltimore native who had more than a passing interest in the opponent for the third game of the preseason schedule.

The owner of WNST Radio in Baltimore, Nestor Aparicio, and his wife made the trip to the Crescent City, and they used my tickets for the game. My wife, who normally didn’t come to preseason games, was convinced to show up and be introduced to the Aparicios as well as other friends from back home who were visiting for the game.

I honestly can’t tell you much about the game itself five years later. The chance to see friends and catch up with what was going on at home brought a little more enjoyment than a normal preseason game would. But the night would be memorable later for other reasons, nothing to do with football.

All during that Friday, most people in the Gulf Coast were keeping an eye on Hurricane Katrina, which had come through the southernmost part of Florida, and at 5 p.m. ET Friday the storm was projected to hit sometime Monday afternoon near the Mississippi-Alabama border.

The threat of hurricanes and tropical storms are a way of life for most natives of the region. By just before 11 p.m. ET as the game was winding down, most people in the Superdome press box were looking at the National Weather Service’s hurricane website and not the action on the field. The potential track had moved to just east of New Orleans.

There were more than a few Saints players who asked, “Where is it headed?” as they came off the Superdome field and entered the locker room. Messages were left for the Aparicios and a member of the Ravens staff who were all planning to stay the weekend — telling them to get out of the city on Saturday as early as possible because of the forecast. Six hours later, the forecast track shifted again — right over the city, and hurricane evacuation plans were activated.

Saturday brought more uncertainty. The Saints organization made plans for football staff, coaches and players (along with their family members) to travel to San Jose on Sunday to prepare for the final preseason game at Oakland that next Thursday. Business and adminstrative staffers, including myself, made personal evacuation plans throughout the southeast and exchanged phone numbers with supervisors as the city began to empty.

That afternoon, my wife and I started a two-car journey northeast for Birmingham, where I worked prior to coming to the Saints, to a friend’s home. The usual five-hour trip took six to complete even with contraflow procedures in place as a lot of traffic out of New Orleans and Baton Rouge headed west toward Houston.

Less than 48 hours after the conclusion of the game with the Ravens, the Superdome went from sports facility to shelter of last resort for thousands of people who did not have the means to get out as the storm approached. No one that Friday night either at the game or partying on Bourbon Street could have imagined the destruction and despair that followed.

NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 30:  People walk through high water in front of the Superdome August 30, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thousands of people are left homeless after Hurricane Katrina hit the area yesterday morning.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The world saw the damage after the storm and the break in the levees. The Superdome, the site of six Super Bowls, became a national symbol of human suffering as several thousand people waited for rescue under the tattered roof and a flooded city. We watched TV constantly and worried for those we had not heard from, and hoped for the best for everyone.

With the team in San Jose, and various other staff members scattered, I worked on updating the Saints’ website with key info provided by the PR staff in San Jose and from club VPs while waiting for further instructions. After the Raiders game, the team headed directly for San Antonio to set up operations.

We found out that residents of where we lived in the New Orleans area could go back a week after the storm to retrieve belongings, secure residences, etc. There was no electricity, and there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew. We drove from Birmingham, through Tuscaloosa, across Mississippi and finally south from Jackson to get to our area.

‘It was a long trip with gas lines in several areas and booked motels at every exit. The only other vehicles on the road heading south were emergency services and power trucks. We had to show our license for proof of residency, and were able to get to our area. The closer we got, the more of the storm’s power we witnessed.

After checking on the house (we had minimal wind damage as we lived about 20+ miles from the Superdome), we made our way back to Birmingham with a filled five-gallon gas can for an emergency stop. We were finally able to re-fuel in Tuscaloosa after some Mad Max-style moments at stops in Mississippi, and we got back to Birmingham early Sunday morning.

On the way back, I got a call that all staffers were to get to San Antonio in time for Monday morning. I flew to San Antonio on Sunday night, and my wife stayed back in Birmingham waiting for information from her place of work.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 19:  The New Orleans Saints cheerleaders pose for a photo with New York Giants fans during their game on September 19, 2005 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Saints are playing their home opener, with proceeds going to the Hurricane Katrina relief fund, in New Jersey after being forced from the Superdome which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Saints organization worked out of the Alamodome, and the staff lived in a hotel near the stadium until after we played the Monday night “home” game in Giants Stadium. The Saints had lined up apartment complexes and other essential services to meet with the staff as we tried to set up shop prior to the season opener at Carolina.

Once all of the staff was in place, the stories about how particular people made out varied by location. Some had lost everything to the storm and flood, and others weren’t sure what was left in apartments or at friends’ houses. But we were here, and we would (and did) do our best to run the day-to-day operations of the club during a surreal season, on and off the field.

The circumstances took its toll on the organization as a whole, and a 3-13 season resulted. Shortly after the season ended, the organization fired head coach Jim Haslett and his staff, and the makeover of the franchise began.

Once the Saints and the NFL committed to our return to New Orleans in mid-January 2006, we came home to a new reality as the region was dealing with the recovery efforts. We didn’t know where the Saints would play in 2006 as the Superdome was being cleaned up and repaired. But the announcement in early February that the Saints would play all of their ’06 games in the Superdome served as a big moment for the community.

Sean Payton was named head coach, and the club signed free-agent quarterback Drew Brees. A leap of faith by both men, their decision to come to New Orleans would spark the franchise’s resurgence in ways no one knew.

NEW ORLEANS - SEPTEMBER 25:  Billie Joe Armstrong (R) of Green Day performs with The Edge of U2 prior to the Monday Night Football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints on September 25, 2006 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Tonight's game marks the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck last August, that the Superdome, which served as a temporary shelter to thousands of stranded victims in the wake of Katrina, has played host to an NFL game.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

My wife and I were fortunate after my departure from the Saints to be a part of the crowd who witnessed the reopening of the Superdome — now a national symbol of the strength and resilience of the people of New Orleans — for the first event in 13 months since the Ravens-Saints game that seemed a lifetime ago. When Green Day and U2 teamed up to play “The Saints Are Coming” in pregame prior to the Falcons-Saints Monday night game, it really felt like the sound was going to lift the building up off its’ foundation.

The celebration outside the facility before the game and inside during the game seemed to signal a collective civic catharsis. It truly was a signal to the nation and the world that New Orleans would return — much different that it had ever been, but better.

A lot had changed for everyone who lived there at the time, and those changes have reverberated through people and institutions in the five years after Katrina.

Among the lessons learned by all of us who were displaced was that home is where you make it, and it’s the bonds of family and friends that really count regardless of where you live. In that way, even though many people left and some weren’t able to return, the spirit of New Orleans always remains strong.

FIRST POSTSCRIPT (Jan. 2008): I wrote this piece for WNST.net after working both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the BCS National Championship Game in January 2008.

I had the opportunity to work both the Sugar Bowl and the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans over the past couple of weeks in a media relations capacity. I had not been back to the Crescent City in nine months after living there for over six years.

There were a couple of lump-in-the-throat moments for me while visiting. One was the sight of thousands of people dressed in team gear from Hawaii, Ohio, Georgia and, of course, Louisiana walking the streets of the French Quarter and around the Superdome. It looked no different that any of the other Sugar Bowls I’ve worked over the years before the storm. You realize how far the city has come back from Katrina in the tourist areas, and most of them seemed to enjoy their time in New Orleans. It gives you hope for the future.

But, go away from the Superdome out to New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward — the areas hit hardest by Katrina and there is a different reality. There are still plenty of trailers next to houses being rebuilt, boarded up apartment complexes, etc. The hardest thing for me was to drive with my wife around the Lower Ninth. As you make your way around the streets, all that is left in a lot of cases is the three steps which went into the shotgun-style houses popular in New Orleans, a twisted metal bannister and a low row of bricks where the foundations of those homes stood.

Also, you can still see the bathtub rings denoting the largest point of the flood around the remaining houses, boats that helped rescue people off of roofs still in the middle of some streets and the markings made by rescue personnel who searched house-to-house for survivors. There are more than a few “One dead in house” markings still visible. The sight of that phrase in spray paint still brings tears.

In talking with fans from the states who visited New Orleans, many had taken the time to venture out and see the destruction for themselves. Being in town to watch their team was important, but there were a lot of people who wanted to gain some perspective on what happened to one of America’s great cities.

SECOND POSTSCRIPT (Aug. 2010): I was on the field for Super Bowl XLIV for the NFL PR staff, working with Westwood One sideline reporter Mark Malone on the Colts’ sideline until our PR crew would grab postgame quotes on the field before the trophy ceremony.

In pregame, when they showed highlights of each team’s season, a video of the city’s destruction and the battered Superdome showed for a few seconds. You could still feel the pain, but you could hear the hope of the thousands of Saints fans cheering who made the trip to Miami.

Three hours later, their faith was rewarded. I was in the bench area for the final two minutes and got to see several friends who were wide-eyed as a Super Bowl title was in reach. The celebration that took place back in New Orleans and the French Quarter as the game ended was unlike any Mardi Gras ever.

NEW ORLEANS - FEBRUARY 09: New Orleans Saints fans cheer on as their team passes in front of the Louisiana Superdome while parading though the city after winning the Super Bowl XLIV on February 9, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

There was a lot made in the media about the Saints’ almost-endless celebration in the weeks and months after winning. Most teams try to put the trophy away soon after to focus on the next year.

The Saints didn’t do that. They celebrated with their fans, and the organization understood what the victory meant for civic pride. In the weeks after the Gulf oil spill, the club brought the team and the Vince Lombardi Trophy to lift the spirts of those affected and those working on cleanup efforts.

The Saints got the spotlight back on New Orleans for sports reasons, but in a big way, got that same spotlight to point out what is still left to be done in the recovery.

The Saints’ victory, as well as the continued work to restore what was lost in the storm, shows that with committment, effort and even faith, all things are possible.

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