The Rebuilding of New Orleans
This week I am making my picks and leaving it at that because I want to tell you about New Orleans and the object of their affection, the Saints.
I was fortunate enough to get access to the Saints and spend time in the City of New Orleans in December of 2006. I was invited by my friend Shannon O’Toole to stay with her and her family, her husband John Morton was coaching for the Saints.
It was an experience I will never forget.
I though that by now the city and the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina would be restored and life would be normal again.
It is sad to say that in this great county of ours, with all the riches we possess and in spite of the hard work of many wonderful, humane and compassionate people, things are still not back to normal in New Orleans.
But, there is one positive in New Orleans, the love affair the City of New Orleans has with its team, the Saints.
The Saints did not reach the Super Bowl in 2006 and yet to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
But they did win the hearts of
Americans, regardless of which team they root for. This season just might be the season the Saints bring the trophy home to the Bayou.
Please take the time to read this story. It is as relevant today, almost three years later as it was in 2006.
The Rebuilding of New Orleans
When the Saints and New Orleans Came Marching Back
By Ivette Ricco
Everyone knows what havoc and destruction Hurricane Katrina wrought on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. in 2005. But, when you live in relative shelter from nature’s monster storms as we do here on the West Coast, it may be hard to fathom the full extent of this natural disaster. Many of those affected by Hurricane Katrina are still displaced, still searching for their roots, still trying to put the pieces back together.
I wanted to find out more about the rebuilding effort. The fact that we as a nation and the world’s greatest power could not respond adequately is a hard pill to swallow.
But, whenever there is disaster, there is a uniting of people. I have seen that myself. In 1965 I was in New York during the Big Blackout. My dad walked from Manhattan to the Bronx, my husband slept on a table in a restaurant. My neighbors helped one another climb out of elevators. There was truly a feeling of “brotherhood” in NYC.
I was in Northern California in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. Again, I felt the compassion of the nation and the world and the coming together of everyone in the SF Bay Area as we all looked for ways to deal with unfolding, shocking, reality.
I had just left NYC on 9/9/01 after attending my father’s funeral and thus just missed the 911 horror. We have all seen the images, we have all felt the pain the fear and the camaraderie in the wake of disaster.
Having never been to New Orleans I have no point of reference. But there are many who have a thorough understanding of the far-reaching implication and effects of Hurricane Katrina not only on New Orleans but on the Gulf Coast as a whole. They led the way for me as I sought to understand the aftermath of Katrina and the outreach of three organizations, the NFL, the New Orleans Saints and Rebuilding Together.
It was an experience I will not soon forget.
Everywhere you go, everyone you see and talk to has felt the impact of Katrina and the breach of the levee in some way. There is a lot of anger. Anger towards the federal government, anger towards FEMA, anger towards the insurance companies, who after a year and a half have still not paid up.
The community is never going to be the same, they say. Many who left out of necessity have chosen to stay away. There are others who are fiercely loyal and refuse to abandon their roots, their families, friends and neighborhoods.
Exiled and displaced are words not normally used to describe American citizens. But, the people of the Gulf Coast have become refugees in their own country.
This is a story about toughness, spirit, heart and compassion. The Rebuilding of New Orleans is about the coming together of people from all over our nation to lend a helping hand to our own.
The world of sports may seem like an unlikely place to start this story, but the resurgence of the New Orleans Saints, perennial NFL losers, has captured the heart and soul of not only New Orleans but of this football loving nation. Their success and their role in the recovery of New Orleans is an integral part of the Rebuilding of New Orleans.
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with Dennis Lauscha, Senior Vice President/Chief Financial Officer for the New Orleans Saints at their facility in Metairie, Louisiana on Friday December 1. The emotion and sincerity with which he spoke can not be fully captured in writing.
The Saints Came Marching Back
There is a special fund, the New Orleans Hurricane Relief Fund established by the Saints owner, Tom Benson.
I have also been told that the NFL has played a significant role when this hurricane ravaged the area, especially to try and get the team back in the Super Dome as they were also displaced by the hurricane and last season played many of their games in other places.
From your perspective how have the Saints responded to this rebuilding effort?
Well it’s a big answer to a gigantic question.
When we came back, we made the commitment to come back, we were always going to come back, it was just a matter of when we were going to come back.
There were so many uncertainties that occurred over the last year, the way it unfolded, from hurricane to the end of our football season, doing things to keep the franchise alive, things we take for granted had to be done.
I remember a conversation very early on that Mr. Benson had with the commissioner, “we’re about to start the regular season, are we going to play this year?”
Which is a gigantic question when you think about it.
Could it be possible that we wouldn’t play?
We had over 20 members of our own staff and players who had lost everything in the hurricane and so we were basically in survival mode last year.
Survival mode with an eye on what was going on in New Orleans. Obviously everyone who worked for us was very interested in what was going on, it was our home, everyone had roots here.
And everybody wanted to get back.
So it was just a matter of timing when we were going to get back.
The one thing we did say when we came back was that it was going to be a struggle
There were still folks who didn’t have homes they had to find residencies for our employees. But we said when we come back we want to be the shining beacon for the community.
Because we knew the Saints organization means a lot.
Tom Benson said that to the senior executive staff and that’s been our mantra and focus we’re coming back to be the shining beacon on recovery and everything else.
So we’ve taken that very, very, very seriously.
And everything we’ve done to date we always think about the community and what we should with the community.
When we first got back we would hear a lot of people thanking us for coming back and we were so glad to be back and there are probably a thousand different, if you will, explanations, why people were so happy for us being back.
The one though is that we had a hurricane and; there was a great book called, “The Meaning of Sports”. The author writes about there’s so much incoherence in the world, so much change in the world and sports brings that coherence back we know what we’re doing for three hours when we’re at a football game, we know the down and distance and what that means, we know how many time outs are left, we know when you score how many points you get.
So it’s a bit of coherence that sports offers. I think that was never more true, to be honest with you, then when the Saints came back. Because everyone here, their life was incoherent in some way. Their families were spread across America; their houses no longer were there. The government was struggling, locally and State and Federally.
But the thing that they did know, they knew what the Fleur D’Lys meant, they knew what the NFL meant, they what it would be like to go back to a Saints game.
And I have heard time and time again, from people, even fans who had not been to a Saints game in forever saying, “I had to get back”.
I had to get in that Dome I had to feel it again.
It was a sense of normalcy that was coming back to their lives.
From that perspective, and that’s not a brick and mortar perspective. But from that perspective, it feels like it’s done a lot wants to continue and we want to be so much a part of that because we truly believe that we are part of that.
Strictly from the rebuilding perspective, some of the things we are dong such raising money, everything that we do right now charity wise is focused on that, on the rebuilding efforts.
Whether it’s brick and mortar, Rebuilding Together, PRC (Preservation Resource Center), Habitat for Humanity, and there are countless others, YET (Youth Education Town) that’s just re-opened, NFL YET Center in New Orleans.
All of those things we’re focused on. rebuilding neighborhoods, hopefully rebuilding and bringing sports to disadvantaged youth again. Right now the New Orleans Recreation Department is essentially non-existent.
The way children in this community get their sports in a lot of ways is through many of the youth programs that we have, the flag football programs and those types of things.
It really runs the gamut of what we’re trying to get involved in.
The Saints have had some discussions about moving, about leaving the area, and it was somewhat up in the air prior to the hurricane, it seems as if now there’s such a strong sense of community and it seems now as if Mr. Benson would like to keep the team here, do you think that this tragedy has reinforced the love this community feels for this team and for their staying here?
I’ll say this, although it was publicly reported a lot that we want to move, that was truly not what was going on in this organization.
What was truly going on in this organization from Tom Benson was talking about how we’re gonna get back. And how much time it was going to take to get back. We couldn’t return immediately because there wasn’t the housing, there wasn’t a lot of the infrastructure you need to run a football team. But we were committed on coming back.
But I think you’re right, the community is in love with us, because they are seeing basically the success we’re having. I mean right now you look across the rebuilding and there has been moderate success in some areas but in a lot of folks minds there hasn’t been the success in rebuilding that they want to see.
However this organization has shown that we have been very successful over the course of the last couple of months beginning with selling the tickets for the season tickets, selling our tickets better than we’ve ever sold before, hiring a new coach, attracting free agents, success in the draft, success on the football field.
So it’s been one good thing after another for us and we want to hope to continue that and that it continues on well beyond this year and into the future.
I think there is a love affair right now and we’re going to do everything to keep that relationship going.
The Saints seem to have won the hearts not only of their fans here in New Orleans but it seems safe to say that NFL fans are rooting for them, that is of course unless they are playing against their team, that Sunday.
Fans seem to be very much behind the Saints because there is a sense that it’s not just a football team but this team is taking a leadership role in a community that has been pretty much devastated and so it’s the feel-good story of the year.
Does that encourage the team, does the team feel that’s there’s more than just playing football this year?
Absolutely, we all feel it, everyone in this organization. The players feel it, the head coach feels it, the general manager feels it. Everyone feels they have a responsibility to really be successful both on and off the field. I have to emphasize that, off the field as well.
You mentioned Sean Payton and Drew Brees; I can’t tell you two better human beings I’ve ever met in all of professional sports. These guys really are sincerely wanting to help folks in this area rebound and get their lives back on track. The things that Drew Brees has done, I mentioned earlier how there aren’t a lot of opportunities for kids and youth programs right now, he’s sponsoring a big event, he had a big event three hours the other night, he was here the entire time with the children, he’s gonna have another event this weekend. The head coach has been everywhere he’s doing so many things. In fact I just a picture of him with GM Mickey Loomis at a Rebuilding Together function where they were raising a house. That leadership that both the quarterback and the head coach have displayed has really been great not only for the Saints organization but really for the whole community.
I’ve also been told that Reggie Bush has his own individual program called Yard by Yard.
Reggie Bush came in right away, a week or two after he was in New Orleans and he was right in the efforts. He leveraged a lot of his personal sponsorship relationships into providing for the city. He had fields built, he had support for some local schools that were basically on the ropes, he bailed them out. He donated cars to relief efforts around here and local county parish sheriff’s offices. Right from the beginning he was using his stardom and relationships to leverage that into helping folks in the community.
It was so well received, and again we talk about Drew Brees and Coach Payton and Reggie Bush but really you can go down the line just about every player in this organization has done something. Mike McKenzie has delivered food, Joe Horn unbelievably in the community almost the poster child if you will for being a community activist, the list goes on and on, you don’t do it justice by just naming a few guys.
It truly is everyone in the organization.
Now that the team seems to have found a great coach and some excellent young talent, you can really look towards a future with this team. Are there still plans to move out of the Super Dome, is a new stadium being considered at all?
No, right now our number one focus is winning football games; you’re catching us in December and making it to the playoffs.
We’re very cognizant however of the situation that the state’s in, where it is financially.
As far as the stadium itself we should really only have to wait through a two year
renovation to bring it back up to where it was before the hurricane with some improvements.
We have this year; it was miraculous to get the building back on line as quickly as we did to put it in the position that you could play football games in it. However, it really is a two year renovation not a one year there’s still a lot of unfinished things in the dome. You mentioned you’re going to the game on Sunday and you won’t even see but the suites are not finished the club room’s not finished there’s still a long ways to go.
Hopefully after the NFC Championship game is played in the building we will shut it down again and continue the construction.
With regard to the long term, we have a very good relationship with the state and with the managers of the building as well. Do to what we did in the last year and the NFL coming together we’re all on the same page, communications is excellent. Right now the focus is on the season first and then talking about long term.
One thing you should know, it’s really been so touching not only for our organization meaning everyone involved with us and everyone outside of this organization who lives in New Orleans to see the outpouring of support we’d had from everybody else. And you talk about being in San Francisco and going through the earthquake and you’ve seen that type of stuff but nothing can really tear you up quicker than seeing someone from Montana down here building a house or someone from Houston or whatever, it’s just been unbelievable. When we’re on the road and at away games just like you said the fans in other parts of the country encouraging us, we’re pulling for you when you’re not playing our team, I can’t even explain how touching that’s been.
One of the organizations mentioned by Mr. Lauscha, Rebuilding Together has played a key role in the effort in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
I met with Camille Lopez, Program Manager, Disaster Relief on Friday the 1st.
Rebuilding Together’s mission is to preserve and revitalize houses and communities, assuring that low-income homeowners, and particularly those who are elderly and disabled and families with children, can live in warmth, safety, independently and with dignity. They provide necessary repairs free of charge to existing homeowners.
Volunteers come from all over the nation. I met a group of people who were from Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, Florida and other areas of the country.
As a result of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Rebuilding Together has pledged to rebuild 1,000 homes in the Gulf.
The two families mentioned below are receiving a helping hand from Rebuilding Together.
Coming Home - 99 Years old and Displaced
Mr. Vigee never expected to be living in Texas in his 99thyear. He had been a resident of the historic Tremé district of New Orleans for more than forty years. When he was planning his retirement, he purchased a small, one-story home. His career as a merchant marine took him all around the globe and he was looking forward to spending more time in New Orleans. He took on a job cleaning restaurants in the French Quarter.
The Vigees evacuated the day before Katrina hit, going to stay with relatives in Texas. They did not have flood insurance and were devastated when they learned the property was flooded by the levee breach. They received no insurance payout. FEMA gave them a little over $10,000, which they’ve been using to rent an apartment in Texas.
Mr. Vigee looks forward to celebrating his 100thbirthday next year back in his home in Tremé.
Coming Home – A Veteran’s Story
Louis Freeman saw action in World War II in both the Pacific and European theatres. The GI Bill allowed him to purchase a home in New Orleans. In one half of the duplex property, Louis Jr. ran a barber shop frequented by many friendly faces in the neighborhood. Mr. Freeman was one of many New Orleanians who was unable to get out of Katrina’s path. When the levees broke and water rose, he was trapped in his attic for days before finally being rescued. He was not safe yet, however, as he, along with other storm-weary survivors, was stranded on a freeway overpass without food, water or medical assistance. Eventually he was evacuated by helicopter to Houston, where he stayed until his 87-year-old body was healthy again.
Now, while Louis Sr. stays with relatives near Baton Rouge, his son does what he can on the house, little by little, day by day.
Rebuilding Together -
This year marked the celebration of Rebuilding Together rehabilitation of its 100,000 home.
“As we mark the occasion of having rehabbed 100,000 houses, it is Rebuilding Together’s hope that more sponsors and volunteers will join us in our mission”, said President and CEO Gary A. Officer. Officer pointed to “Yard by Yard, a recently introduced campaign in which NFL rookie star and New Orleans Saints football player Reggie Bush and Diet Pepsi have teamed up with RT (Rebuilding Together) to help the people of New Orleans rebuild.
“With more than 24 million low-income homeowners and others in need in communities across America, we’re giving voice to the heart in many ways – as we fix up houses affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as we reach out to help injured veterans returning from Iraq, and as we help our own elderly and disabled neighbors, as well as families with children”, said Officer. “And as we rebuild homes, we rebuild lives”.
For more information on Rebuilding Together call 1-800-REHAB-9 or see www.rebuildingtogether.org.
Coming Home – Lakeview
I stumbled upon a coming home party as I drove through the Lakeview section of New Orleans. This neighborhood abuts the levee and suffered severe damage when the levee breached.
It was an unusual and somewhat surreal scene, home upon home boarded up and abandoned, amongst homes with trailers parked in the front yards. I even spotted a boat that had been left on the street.
I spoke with the young woman who owned the home. She told me her story.
The house was a year and a half old when the levee breached.
The new landscaping, the pool all gone. They were left with 11 feet of water in the garage. The second level of the home was high enough to avoid catastrophic damage but the home was unlivable.
I asked her why, why did you rebuild in the middle of all this destruction?
”Because it’s home and it was a wonderful neighborhood with family and friends all living close by.”
Where did you stay while you rebuilt?
”We had to rent a place in Baton Rouge and commute daily. We had to pay rent and still pay the mortgage on this house”.
Do you expect it will ever be the same here again?
“I think a lot of people will stay and rebuild, if they can afford it. But many had to leave and can’t afford to rebuild. The insurance won’t cover the flood damage.”
Why are you having a party?
”I wanted to be home for Christmas, this is our celebration, this is our coming home party, we’re not done yet, but we wanted to share this with everyone”.
Aren’t you afraid this might happen to you again?
”Sometimes you just have to roll the dice.”