Katrina: As The Storm Approached
On the evening of Aug. 26, 2005, the Saints played a pre-season game against the Baltimore Ravens in the Superdome. The Saints had split the first two preseason games including an impressive win on the road against the New England Patriots, but on this night, they had no fire. A friend who was a guest in the owner’s suite reported that Tom Benson was visibly angry as his team fell 6-21.
Up to that point the loss had been the worst news in what was an otherwise upbeat week. Just the night before there had been a party in the Blue Room at the Fairmont Hotel to celebrate the birthday of Huey Long, who during his political reign had been a frequent visitor to the hotel. Sazeracs, the house specialty, were generously served as the crowd toasted the “Kingfish.”
Another politician of note, Mayor Ray Nagin, arrived a little late. I asked him how things were going. Nagin gushed with enthusiasm. During that week alone an announcement was made that developer Donald Trump was going to build an office tower in the city. Also plans had been finally developed for a multi-military community on the West Bank to be called “Federal City.” The mayor emphasized that finally the city was on its way economically, and he was proud of it. I celebrated the news with a Sazerac.
By Saturday, Aug. 27, the news had turned somber. A tropical system in the gulf was now a hurricane. It was big and it looked like it might be heading our way.
That Saturday night I saw Nagin again; this time on television. During the 10 p.m. news slot, he travelled to every news station to tell his constituents something that no mayor ever wants to say: they should leave town. A major storm was definitely heading our way. Everybody should evacuate. There would be many bad days ahead for Nagin, but this was his finest and most passionate moment. He was Paul Revere warning of an invasion. The mayor pleaded: To survive, people needed to leave – soon.
It must have been around 4 p.m. that Sunday afternoon. The traffic was stalled on 1-10 heading west. I got out the car and looked back. A big dark, ugly cloud mass was hovering over the city. For the first time, I felt frightened. What if the traffic never moved and we were caught in whatever was coming?
Eventually, traffic controls were implemented and the stalled vehicles continued their escape. Frazzled but relieved, we reached our upstate destination in Mansura shortly before midnight. By Monday, Aug. 29, we were at a cousin’s house in the Central Louisiana city of Marksville, the birthplace of Edwin Edwards. The front page picture of the daily newspaper, The Alexandria Town Talk, was an aerial view of the traffic on I-10. Westbound was bumper to bumper; eastbound was empty. The headline proclaimed what we all feared: THIS IS THE BIG ONE.
Even more ominous, if that was possible, was the headline of an accompanying article by the Associated Press: “Experts Expect Storm to Turn New Orleans into Atlantis.”
By late afternoon, however, the news did not seem so bad. The hurricane, Katrina, had blown across the city. There were trees and power lines knocked over. Worse yet there were tv pictures taken from a helicopter of the Southern Yacht Club, which was being destroyed by a massive fire. Overall, though, New Orleans seemed to have survived. Certainly, we would all be back home by Wednesday.
Then there would be one major problem. Later that evening, as WWL radio’s 50,000 watt voice bellowed across the land, a report came that the levees in New Orleans had broken and the city was flooding. At that moment, our lives changed.
Years later, Federal City is still sluggish in its development. Trump Tower never came, though its namesake would make news in other ways.
As for the Saints. They had a miserable 3-13 season. The Superdome had been badly damaged by the ordeal and the team played most of its home games in San Antonio’s Alamo Dome, where the mayor was like Wylie Coyote licking his lips to the possibility of the Saints, as the Roadrunner, remaining there. Other home games were played at LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Because the Superdome needed massive repairs, the Saints did not return to the stadium until Sept. 25, 2006. In what might be called the Emotion Bowl, the NFL arranged for the game to be on Monday Night football.
During the Atlanta Falcon’s first possession Saint Steve Gleason blocked a punt, which became a touchdown. The crowd, long suffering for something to cheer about, went crazy.
In the years to follow, as Gleason has faced the challenges of ALS, that game would become a metaphor for strong will and perseverance.
From those early days there are two quotes that I will always remember. During that Sunday morning of the evacuation a friend called to check on our plans, then she added: “I wish I could pay someone to tell me what to do.”
A few days later, we were at a bed-and-breakfast near Marksville. Two other families were there from St. Charles Parish. The women, who were sisters, looked at the horrible scenes of New Orleans drowning. One said to the other. “Every time I see those pictures I feel like crying.” And the other replied: “Me too, but I am afraid if I start, I will never stop.”
At least maybe we were all becoming a bit stronger should there be another unexpected natural disaster in our future.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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