Former and current NBA stars (Bill Russell and Steve Nash pictured) came together in New Orleans to help in continuing hurricane recovery efforts.
It was 1981, I was weeks away from high school graduation and 150 of my closest friends Amtraked it to the Big Easy for our yearly band tour. Given that most of us had recently reached the then-drinking age of 18 and the fact that we fancied ourselves as the artsy group of our class, it was quite literally the time of our lives.
We drank Hurricanes, walked Bourbon Street, hung out by the river’s edge and even managed to perform a couple of concerts, most notably in historic Jackson Square.
When the footage of Katrina’s devastating aftermath began to air two years ago, I joined all who had ever been to New Orleans in a personal feeling of loss. Only those who had the opportunity to enjoy the French Quarter and its eccentricities pre-Katrina could truly know what was lost when that massive storm blew ashore and changed the region forever.
So when I heard that the NBA’s All-Star Weekend was heading to Louisiana I jumped at the chance to return to the source of such great adolescent memories. I knew it would not be the same. Natural disaster and human error had combined to make New Orleans a bleak skeleton of what it once was – a proud and unique destination, combining European style and class with Southern hospitality and good old American entrepreneur spirit.
Upon our arrival on Thursday, the airport shuttle to our hotel made a couple of stops to drop others off in the French Quarter and the memories from our trip over a quarter-century ago (yikes) came back clearer than ever.
I tried to set aside in my mind the pain that was still being felt throughout the city while the efforts being made to rebuild the ravaged communities and return the people to their homes continued.
As heart-wrenching as the images of the destruction were, they did not come close to what it felt like to see first-hand the destructive wake that still ripples throughout the area.
On our way to the league’s NBA Cares event on Friday, we could see block after block of gutted out buildings and flattened slabs where vibrant, if not terribly wealthy, communities once hosted barbeques, family gatherings, all the good and bad that “normal” life has to offer.
As some of the world’s most famous athletes painted, touched up and cleaned up houses in conjunction with “Rebuilding Together,” an organization dedicated to the continual reconstruction efforts, getting out the message of despair that this community is still feeling seemed even more important than the handiwork Nash, Stoudemire and their buddies were applying to the buildings.
As I spoke to one of the organizers the anguish and anger was clear in her face and tone. As she explained the environmental, economic and political reasons that the very spot we were standing on was once submerged in several feet of water (I actually heard members of the media complain about the mud and paint they got on their jeans, but that is the subject for another time), it occurred to me that this was not just someone dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster. This was a woman who felt let down by the very people who were supposed to be there to help the situation, not exacerbate it with poor planning and poorer execution. This was a woman who felt as if after gaining the world’s sympathy over the tragic storm and its aftermath, New Orleans had become a forgotten city.
The shuttle driver who took us back to our hotel gave us a tour of the some of the neighborhoods. I could not hear most of what she was saying, but the visuals told the story anyway. More gutted houses and businesses, blocks of empty concrete slabs where homes and lives were washed away. Houses tipping at an angle, seemingly ready to topple over at the slightest breeze. Many of the buildings had markings from rescue workers, letting those who would follow know when they had passed through and what they found, if anything. I even saw some houses marked with “AZ,” which we were told meant that a rescue team from our state had been there.
The prevailing aura of sadness was lifted a bit by the knowledge that the NBA and our Suns players and staff had put in the time to help with both the physical labor and awareness efforts. But as we drove through the streets of New Orleans, where only half its pre-Katrina population remains, the massive job that still awaits those that are left was apparent in the shambles that left behind.
(Steven J. Koek/Suns.com)
I could see in the faces of the hotel, restaurant and other local workers their appreciation for NBA’s decision to hold its annual showcase of the best basketball players in the world in New Orleans. They are still a proud community trying desperately to regain the luster of one of the most unique destinations our country has to offer. While the financial windfall and national awareness that All-Star Weekend provided was just the boost that was needed, it hardly completes the job. The league’s proactive stay in the Big Easy should help readdress the needs of the community, and launch them back into the national consciousness to speed up the rebuilding and recreation of the city.
It was a massively humbling experience and one that dissuaded me from taking part in the traditional Bourbon Street celebration, even if I had the time or energy I had with my high school buddies so long ago.
Thankfully, I was in the minority viewpoint in that respect, as the city’s visitors partied and pumped money into the local economy like it had not seen in quite some time.
I did walk the French Quarter and recalled some of the landmarks from my first trip. I waxed nostalgic at The Court of Two Sisters restaurant where we toasted to the friendships that remain to this day. I stood at the boardwalk where I sat with our group for hours and listened to water lap up against the shore while we talked about what lay ahead in our lives beyond high school.
I could not help wondering how different this trip would have been, both personally and professionally, without the underlying current of sadness that seemed to hover throughout the weekend.
There is some feeling of hope from those who have returned or never left. Hope that with time, effort and an increased global awareness of their continuing plight, they can rebuild their lives and community to some state of normalcy. Unfortunately for many, two years after Katrina hit their shores, hope is still all that remains.