When the Water Flows

by: Tom Rau

Sometimes when the water flows over New Orleans it’s just a sign that everything is in its right place…..

It wasn’t the first time Patrick had ever cried at a football game…..

It’s strange how serious we take sports as a culture. We dress up. We paint our faces. We chant. We go to war. Except there’s never a war. It’s always just a game. Yet there we are, bursting with passion, screaming, chanting, fighting. And all just to say that the group of guys we support is better than the group of guys you support, to say my city is fake tougher than your city. On one hand, it seems simplistic and stupid…

But on the other hand, the power of the collective unconscious is deep. Deep like a drug. It’s so deep that when you put a hundred people in a room together to listen to a speech, or see a show, you can feel it. It’s power magnified only by the number of people there to reciprocate. Think about every man or woman who has ridden that energy to do something greater than him or herself. Think about the waves of collective emotion that have changed the world: ‘I Have  a Dream’, the Million Man March, Woodstock, etcetera. It’s something we’ve all felt. And probably one of the most awe-inspiring things we get to experience as humans.

Now, take a second and change gears. Imagine everything you have ever loved in your life, or the one thing you the love the most. Hold it there, and then imagine its all taken away instantaneously. You are a kid on a raft, completely alone. Below you is a city of death. You’ve lost your toys, your blankets, your pets, your parents, everything you love. Now zoom out. It’s not just you. Instead it’s everyone surrounding you who has also lost everything; an unconnected group of individuals floating on a sea of desolation. Now, zoom out again. How about we take one of the most magical cities on the planet and unleash the full fury of the elements. Its citizens are told to leave. But many of them don’t, for love, for pride, for loyalty, or because they just can’t.1 Think about being there, about losing everything, more than everything, floating above this city of death, and then think about how hard you would fight to get it back, and what that moment would feel like when you did. Welcome to New Orleans circa August 2005 – before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.

The city of New Orleans is as unique and incredible as any city in the world. An anthropologist’s wet dream, it’s the ultimate smorgasbord of bizarre and awesome cultures;from the parties and parades, to the cuisine and culture, to its voodoo underbelly. It is human jambalaya. You could start the Universe over a trillion times and you would never end up with another city like it. There is an attitude there that isn’t prevalent anywhere else in the world.  And if you were born near the bayou the spirit of the city is in your blood, the same as the oxygen you breathe. But when Katrina hit on August 29th, 2005 that spirit was suffocated.

The Louisiana Superdome, home of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, had been used as a storm shelter since it was opened in 1975.  It was built to reportedly withstand winds up to 200mph.  In 1998, during Hurricane Georges, it temporarily housed 14,000 people, but the city wasn’t pleased with the amount of property damage and theft that took place.  So after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 the city decided it would take a new approach, one the governor refereed to as an “experiment.”  The experiment’s underlying philosophy was to do as little as possible and instead just tell the people they should leave the city.

Thus, in the late summer of 2005, in the time leading up to Katrina, the city started referring to the Superdome not as a storm shelter but as a “refuge of last resort.” Along with this they decided that they would not provide water purification systems or medical triage. Anyone coming was told they would have to bring their own cot, food, supplies, etcetera. In the words of the city’s Director of Emergency Preparedness, “it’s not a hotel.” And it definitely was not. I’m not even sure if it qualified as a refuge of last resort. In the days and weeks that followed Hurricane Katrina the Superdome became a televised microcosm of the devastation that crushed New Orleans.

There were failures on literally every level. For starters, when the storm hit the shore 9,000 people had already arrived at the now completely unprepared Superdome. Then there was the hole that the storm tore in the roof. This caused flooding inside the building itself. Within hours the entire field level was underwater, a reminder to everyone there of what was happening on the outside. Within days the number of people there had grown to over 20,000. In most cases it was their only option. But with little food, no clean water, and no preordained medical triage it quickly became unmanageable. There with reports of robberies, beatings, widespread sickness, and rape. Three of the cities elderly died. Afterwards it was said that the Superdome itself would have to be demolished. The city’s football team was to be homeless like much of the rest of the city.

Inside, it was humanity at its worst. Outside it wasn’t even human. When the levees broke the city was done. When the worst of it had passed New Orleans was left to deal with almost 1,600 deaths and 80 billion dollars in damages. 800,000 people had been displaced from their homes, the most since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. There were actual public conversations about not rebuilding the city because damage to its infrastructure was so severe. Leave it for dead they said, the city has fallen.

But New Orleans doesn’t work quite like the rest of the world. To a resident of the Big Easy, having nothing at home is better than having everything anywhere else. And so they came back, oftentimes to nothing. They lived with friends. They lived with families. They slept in their businesses. They slept in their cars.They slept in the street. They did whatever they could to be there and to rebuild. They decided the Superdome, which was the public eye to all of the suffering that happened in the storm, wouldn’t be it’s final victim. They would rebuild that too. They, like the Saints, and the Saints like them, would one day get to come back home.

The relationship between the New Orleans Saints and it’s city is almost as cool as the city itself. They are named after New Orleans most famous song. Their logo, the Fleurs-de-lis, is not only a representation of the city’s French heritage, it is also a symbol of the deltas from St. Louis down to the Gulf of Mexico, just further proof that everything is a mish-mash in The Big Easy. And despite the fact there are a million things to love there, one thing everyone loves is the Saints. On paper it doesn’t make much sense. They had never been a great football team, only once making it past the first round of the playoffs in their 40 year history prior to Katrina. But the people never turned their back on them. In most cities many of the bohemians, artists, and academics don’t do sports. In Nola they’ll wear the fucking jersey. For better or for worse the Saints were always a part of the party. They are as much New Orleans as Mardi-Gras. And the Superdome was their home. They had played every football game since 1975 there. Now, like the rest of the inhabitants of New Orleans they were homeless. They would have to play on the road for an entire 2005 football season.

Katrina took something from everyone that lived there. It even took the football team.

I met a guy from New Orleans named Patrick who was born in the swamps of Louisiana.  He is in his late 40s’s and has the heart of a lion. We spent a night talking and drinking. He came up from nothing in a place where nothing really is nothing.  But you would never know it by looking at him. He moved to New Orleans from Terrebonne Parish (The same place they shoot the reality-TV show Cajun Justice) when he was 17. A year and a half later he said he was never leaving. He’s been part of a Mardi Gras krewe for over 25 years. After college, he started what is now an ultra-successful accounting firm. His wife and he love New Orleans so much that they bought a vacation home in a city that they already live in. They sponsor a stage at a musical festival for local jazz musicians. We talked for hours about the music, magic, food, and culture of his city. His voice always full of zeal and peppered with hints of cajun flavor. I never would have pegged him a football fan. I still had (and still have) a lot to learn about the city New Orleans.  But I decided to ask anyway: “What about the Saints?”

It was an odd moment. He paused for a second, as if perplexed, his shoulders rose and fell as he took a deep breath and said, “I want to tell you a story, it’s about the second time I ever cried at a football game.”

On September 25, 2006,  the New Orleans Saints finally came home, and to the exact place where a little over one year before 20,000 people survived in conditions that can only be described as subhuman. But now they were a symbol of everything the city had gone through. Finally, they were coming home. There were over 75,000 people in the stadium that day, but all of New Orleans was somehow in the house. They were facing their rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.  But more than that they were facing the world, showing us what the city of New Orleans was all about.

If you watch a clip of the game you can hear it in the crowd. The Falcons never stood a chance. It was eleven men versus the spirit of one of the greatest and most resilient cities in the world. Atlanta’s first possession ended with a blocked punt that the Saints ran back for a touchdown. They never looked back. When the game was over the final score was 20-3. Water flowed. But this time it wasn’t there to destroy the city. It was the tears of over a million people, including my new friend Patrick, experiencing triumph most of us will never experience. It was the city of New Orleans saying, “Yes we have been to hell. Yes, we did lose it all. And here we stand, with nothing but joy in our heart.”

While it might only be a game to most of us, to the people who had lost their homes, their pets, their loved ones – their everything, it was a symbol that they would come back and thrive; that in the exact location they suffered in front of the entire world, they would come back, rebuild, and be victorious.

Patrick was there that day. It was the second time he had ever cried at a football game. I can’t even fucking imagine the first.

  1. There is something uniquely human about going down with the ship, when that ship is all that you ever have known. []

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