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Patron SaintsHow Saints Gave New Orleans a Reason to Believe
By Alan Donnes
Center StreetCopyright © 2007 Alan Donnes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCOME HELL AND HIGH WATER
MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2006, will long be remembered as the darkest day in the history of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. In the early morning hours a massive hurricane named Katrina, swollen to epic proportions by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, paid us a most unwelcome visit. At first, the storm passed and the damage seemed at least manageable, no worse than normal in the course of life in Hurricane Alley. Then the levees broke.
In the days that followed, the catastrophic aftermath of the storm was seared into the nation's collective memory. On the Gulf Coast, whole towns were simply wiped off the map. In New Orleans, entire neighborhoods were destroyed, houses simply picked up and carried away. Thousands of residents languished in hospitals and nursing homes with no power. Thousands more were left stranded on rooftops and at the Superdome and Convention Center. They had no food, no water, and no way to escape. Once the full measure of the storm's wreckage was assessed, over $80 billion in damage had been done and nearly 2,000 people had lost their lives. It was the worst natural disaster in American history.
But three daysearlier, death and destruction were the furthest things from anyone's mind. Hurricane Katrina was just a minor storm somewhere off in the Gulf of Mexico, and the people of New Orleans had their attention fixed on a much higher priority: football.
That night, led by quarterback Aaron Brooks and head coach Jim Haslett, the New Orleans Saints were about to take on the Baltimore Ravens in a routine preseason matchup. The fans in attendance filtered into the Superdome, laughing and having a good time, buying their beer and hot dogs, settling in for the big game. Outside the dome, still more Saints devotees gathered with friends around big-screen TVs at their local bars, celebrating their team in the best local tradition. Others around the city tuned in their radios and car stereos to the game broadcast on WWL and waited to see what the Saints would do. And when the team took to the field that night, everything seemed perfectly normal. A few scattered weather reports were the only clues that their destiny was about to change forever.
Kenny Wilkerson, sideline reporter, WWL Radio
It was a pretty good crowd for a preseason game, and it was pretty relaxed early on. Everybody knew before the Ravens game that there was a hurricane out somewhere off the tip of Florida. It wasn't that nobody was watching it, but at the time it was a category one, and it was supposed to hit Florida. If you live in New Orleans or anywhere along the coast, you see a couple of these every year. I mean, nobody had any idea it would become what it became.
Sammy Marten, fan
I was watching the game on TV, and they took one of those breaks for news. The guys said that Katrina was changing course and was heading for either Louisiana or Mississippi. I'm up in Memphis, but I have family all down around there. I wasn't real worried, though.
Bobby Hebert, former quarterback, New Orleans Saints
Before the game, the weather people had been talking about this hurricane down near Miami, but it was still supposed to go up into Florida. So, we knew about it in the radio studio, but we didn't really talk about it while we were doing the pregame show. They did in the news, but not so much during the Saints coverage. You know, down here, this time of year, we're more concerned with football than with some hurricane going to Florida.
Jack Catilanotta, fan
My wife, Dale, and I were out with friends at Parkway Bakery, a great little bar and café. We were eating po'boys and dancing to a band called New Orleans Streetcar. It was one of those magical New Orleans nights. The place was crowded, and everyone was "passing a good time," as we say down here.
They had the Saints game on the television, and all of a sudden, I remember local weatherman Carl Arredondo cutting into the game, saying that a major shift in the storm known as Katrina had taken place. It was now taking a direct course for New Orleans. Before you knew it, cell phones were going off all over the patio, and everybody's facial expressions slowly started taking on this weird sense of urgency. It was that age- old question: Do we evacuate?
Pam Randazza, owner, Black & Gold Sports Shop
I was in my seat at the dome, watching the game. Everybody's cell phones started ringing at the same time. It was weird. Then people started grabbing their things and heading for the exits.
You could see that people were all getting told about it. Then they made an announcement over the stadium PA. It wasn't a panic, but you could tell something was happening. And, nothing to do with the hurricane, but the team didn't look real good that night. They lost 21-6. The Superdome emptied out real fast.
Usually, all we talk about after the game is the Saints, but I was giving out coordinates. I was giving the longitudes and the latitudes of the storm, estimated times for landfall, all that stuff-on a sports show. By the end of the broadcast, it was almost all about the hurricane.
I still have a house in Atlanta, so that's where I was going. I wasn't going to be here for this one. It was going to be bad.
Mickey Loomis, general manager, New Orleans Saints
We told all of our players, "Listen, spend all of Saturday and Sunday morning getting your family out of harm's way. Then report to Saints headquarters at noon on Sunday."
The plan was once we got everybody there, we'd go to the airport and fly to San Jose. We had our next preseason game against Oakland the following week.
We set up a call center in New Orleans before we left. We made sure that every player had a way to get their family out of town. We had a few players that didn't, so we matched them up with other spouses and family members. We just made sure that everybody had (a) a way to get out and (b) a place to go.
Brian Grenrood, news director, FOX 8
About fifteen of us volunteered to man the TV station during the hurricane. I was the news director, so I sort of needed to be there. We had evacuated most of the staff to Mobile earlier in the day. I think at first they didn't believe it was going to be that bad. As the storm got closer, it was so big and so strong that you knew things were going to be rough. We were battening down the hatches, and I planned to ride it out at the station.
Michelle Babineaux, owner, Michaul's Cajun Dance Hall
I took my son and we got out of there. I locked up my restaurant and we got out of the city. I live in Venetian Isles, which is east of the city. It's right on the water, actually between the levee and the lake. So how crazy am I? Let me tell you, though, I might be crazy to live there, but I'm not stupid. I took my son, and we left.
Abbe Garfinkel, fan
I kept hoping that it would miss us, but then I saw on television how big it was. It was as big as the Gulf of Mexico. I said, "We're going."
We have dogs, and I wasn't going to leave them behind, so we needed a hotel that would take them. We also wanted to go somewhere that would be far enough away from landfall that we would have electricity after the storm. We had stayed at the Ramada Inn in Natchez, Mississippi, before. They had let us keep the dogs with us, so that was where we headed. We called ahead, and they said that they were booked. I said, "Well, we're coming, and if anything becomes available, hold it for us."
Mickey Loomis, general manager, New Orleans Saints
The players and the coaches all took care of their families. We met at the facility on Sunday, got on the plane, and really, just wished and hoped for the best.
We got to Natchez and they said that, no, they didn't have a room, and that the nearest one they knew of was in Dallas. Dallas? I said, "Thanks, but I'm not driving to Dallas. I'll be out in the parking lot. We'll wait in the car, and if somebody doesn't show up or if you have anything at all, we'll take it." And I went back out and sat in my car.
At about 10 p.m., FOX corporate called and ordered all of us to leave. They said, "If you stay, you're fired."
Well, because we had all planned on being at the station, none of us had anywhere to go. We all called around frantically trying to find places where we could ride out the storm. I was supposed to go to the Kenner Police Station with three other guys, but we all thought better about it and decided to just fend for ourselves.
My wife was in Lake Charles. I decided to drive and meet her there. My car was low on gas, and of course, the gas stations were all closed by then. The owners had all evacuated and boarded them up. I had to go to my mother- in- law's house and get her car to make the drive. I didn't get on the interstate until after 11 p.m., and it was deserted.
Driving west toward Lake Charles you have to drive over a long bridge that goes over the Bonnet Carre Spillway. Lake Pontchartrain is immediately to your right as you drive over it. By then the winds were over fifty miles per hour, and I had to hold the steering wheel tightly with both hands just to keep the car on the road. Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge I saw a total of two other cars, both heading out.
I went back in to the motel at about three or four in the morning. They told me that they still didn't have anything but that we were welcome to come in and wait in the lounge. They were remodeling it, and so it was sort of torn up, but there was a TV in there, and we could try to get comfortable. I told them about the dogs, and they said that it was okay to bring them inside. They were really so nice.
So, we went in and made a little area for us and the dogs. We lay across some chairs and started watching the Weather Channel. As we were watching I just kept thinking, what is going to happen? What is going to be left when we get back?
I just watched and hoped that maybe it would turn at the last minute or we'd have some kind of miracle. I hoped I'd have a house when I got back. That was all I could do-hope and pray.
Excerpted from Patron Saints by Alan Donnes Copyright © 2007 by Alan Donnes. Excerpted by permission.
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