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Two Years After Katrina

Sports played a special role in the early stages of the New Orleans recovery, but beyond the Superdome, in battered, depopulated areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward, there is a great need to get the city's at-risk youth back in play

You in?" It'sthe query posed to anyone who would be in the game, an exhortation rich withresolve and checked guts. It's essentially what New Orleanians with arebuilder's heart have been asking one another for most of the two years sincethe greatest natural disaster in U.S. history sent 40 billion gallons of waterinto their city, rinse-cycled homes and lives, and withdrew to lay bare itswork.

You in? If you are, you inhabit a city transformed. Sports after HurricaneKatrina is a world in which New Orleans Saints stage clinics in FEMA trailerparks, and New Orleans Hornets raise drywall, and high school coaches block outplays in cafeterias for want of football fields--while the foundation begun bylate NFL star Reggie White paradoxically offers the public service of housedemolition.

It's a world inwhich baseball diamonds are hard to come by, but the spray-paintedhieroglyphics of search-and-rescue teams still adorn the facades of houses,like notations on baseball scorecards, indicating the number of dead bodiesfound inside.

It's a world inwhich insurance companies suddenly seem to underwrite every sporting event intown--and homeowners fume, believing that Allstate (sponsor of the Sugar Bowl,this season's BCS championship game, and holder of a Patron Saint stake in thelocal NFL franchise) and State Farm (with the Bayou Classic and the Louisianahigh school football championships) are trying to deflect attention from themeager settlements and trebled premiums that keep even those who want torebuild from coming home to do so.

It's a world inwhich the NCAA is exposed as actually having a heart, for the Inspector Javertsof Indianapolis have suspended some of their rules--on extra benefits forathletes and on standards to qualify for Division I status--at Tulane and theUniversity of New Orleans.

It's a world inwhich the Saints sell every season ticket and corporate suite, as citizens andbusinesses still in town try to make sure that Katrina won't become a pretextfor the team's long-feared departure.

It's a world inwhich Alfred Lawless High, once the pride of the Lower Ninth Ward, stands likePompeii Tech, neither razed nor rebuilt, just suspended in time by the lavaflow of the floodwater. What became of the boy who wore helmet number 34, whichas of a month ago still sat in locker 827? And that girls' basketball jerseymoldering outside the gym--is its owner piecing her life back together inHouston or Baton Rouge? On the blackboard of an English classroom, still:AUGUST 29, 2005, DO NOW: SIGN IN. WRITE A PARAGRAPH WITH THE FOLLOWING WORDS:SAINTS, PRESEASON, RUNNING BACK.

Do now: Sign in,indeed. You in? The federal government has been "in," allright--indifferent and intransigent, almost criminally so. Much of the aid duethe city is only just beginning to flow, while the engineering work and coastalmanagement necessary to make New Orleans secure remain years and billions fromcompletion. In the meantime local government has been "in"too--incompetent and incorrigible by turns; the status of Lawless High is onlyone of many examples. Even the country at large seems to suffer from Katrinafatigue, moving smartly on while clinging to caricatured notions of what lifein the city is like--"Everything," says UNO athletic director JimMiller, "from 'Gosh, shouldn't you be back to normal?' to 'You're stillunderwater, aren't you?' "

All of whichleaves the fate of New Orleans to New Orleanians. And so they transformthemselves from huddled masses to huddle-uppers, rebuilding and repopulatingtheir city one home, one block, one neighborhood at a time.

The"super" in Superdome is no accidental prefix. In good times the32-year-old stadium, one of the largest domed structures in the world, hashosted six Super Bowls, four Final Fours, Muhammad Ali and the Pope. In bad, ithas served as the city's refuge of last resort, shelter from the storm for theindigent and infirm. As Katrina bore down on the Dome, and nursing homesdropped off patients with notes pinned to their clothing, the spectrum ofhumanity housed there ranged from gangbangers to tourists to those who wouldparade around the concourses singing This Little Light of Mine.

Soon after Katrinamade landfall early on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, winds of 127-mph blewtwo smoke-relief vents off the Superdome roof. Metal decking began to flapagainst steel trusses above the heads of terrified evacuees huddled in thelower bowl of seats. Soon a 60-foot gash had opened, and debris began to showerthe field below: steel bolts, light fixtures, ceiling tiles, even a lightningrod, each an implement of death if it were to hit someone after a fall of 270feet.

Doug Thorntonwatched all this with as much emotional freight as anyone. He is regional vicepresident of SMG, the Philadelphia-based venue-management company that operatesthe Superdome, and this is his building. Doug and his wife, Denise, had holedup there to ride out hurricanes before, though never with so many others. Heand Lt. Col. Doug Mouton of the National Guard used a bullhorn and alltheir persuasive wiles to move evacuees out of danger without touching offpanic.

As water cascadeddown interior walls and stairwells, and wind further peeled back the roof, noone in the Dome knew that, all over the city, levees had begun to fail. Only onTuesday morning did officials inside the Dome finally start piecing togetherthe truth. Watching the water rise on Poydras Street, right outside thestadium, Thornton felt his heart seize up. When the power to downtown hadfailed on Monday, the Dome's emergency generator had kicked on, providingenough electricity for dim light. But if the generator were compromised byfloodwaters, the arena would be plunged into darkness, causing panic, anarchyand death far greater than the six fatalities that would officially berecorded. Thornton raced to the boiler room to find water lapping against thedoor. Only a quick sandbagging operation saved the generator.

As the city filledwith water, the Dome filled with more and more people, many delivered byhelicopters straight from rooftops. The generator couldn't supply airconditioning or water pressure, only a post-apocalyptic half-light. Heat,squalor and unchecked rumors tugged at the fraying social fabric. Vandals andlooters had their way with corporate suites and vending machines. A man wasbeaten nearly to death on word that he had tried to molest a girl. The corpsesof four people who expired from the heat wound up in a catering freezer, whilea man hurled himself off the upper deck. As several inches of sewer watercovered the field, and human waste backed up, people--ultimately more than30,000--would eat an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), then defecate in the bag it hadcome in.

After 3 1‚ÅÑ2 daysin the Superdome, Denise Thornton was evacuated with other SMG families andnonessential employees in the wee hours of Sept. 1. By that afternoon herhusband, as the last Dome staffer to be choppered out, caught a glimpse oftheir neighborhood in the affluent New Orleans subdivision of Lakewood South.Water stood even with the eaves of houses. "There's glistening water as faras the eye can see," he says today. "This is epic. I'm thinking, It'sover. Where do we start? Can we ever rebuild? I'm crying all the way to BatonRouge."

The day afterevacuating, Thornton began to search for the answer to a single question: Wasthe Superdome still structurally sound? If it was, there'd be a chance torebuild. Never mind what would have to be replaced: 15% of the seats, 750,000square feet of drywall, 850,000 square feet of ceiling tiles, virtually all thecarpeting, the entire playing field and the 9.6-acre roof. At the end of themonth engineers delivered word that only the roof had suffered structuraldamage. The Dome could indeed be rebuilt.

On Sept. 16 theThorntons returned to the neighborhood where they had once lived. They cameupon a brown, silent moonscape. After the storm surge raced through the breachin the levee along the 17th Street Canal less than a mile from the Thorntons'home, the brackish water had sat for two weeks and killed all vegetation andanimal life. With an ax Doug knocked down their front door. What they sawresembled what tens of thousands of others would see upon returning home:several inches of mud caked to the floor; mottles of mold from the floodwatermarinade; a refrigerator that needed lugging to the curb. But here too werereminders of what had made life pre-Katrina distinctively theirs, such as aphoto album miraculously preserved because it sat on a sofa that thefloodwaters buoyed to the ceiling. The Thorntons were lucky: Theirs was atwo-story brick house, and the seven feet of standing water hadn't quitereached the second floor.

Still theynavigated the same posttraumatic stages that so many of their fellow citizensdid. "Shock, then denial, then anger, then grief," Doug says. He andDenise briefly became "wandering souls," in his phrase, trying tofigure out what to do. They considered crawfishing off to California, home ofDenise's son. Then, looking around, they thought, We can't leave. If we leave,and others like us leave, the city's gone. On Oct. 8 they moved into thehome of friends in Metairie, just west of the city, and threw themselves intotheir respective reclamations--Doug of the Dome, Denise of their home.

For Doug, this wasthe professional challenge of a lifetime. The NFL--and Saints owner Tom Bensonhimself--made clear that the Dome had to be football-ready by late September2006. Thornton kept contractors on a punishingly tight schedule. "If we canrebuild a two-million-square-foot building," Thornton told anyone who wouldlisten, "you can rebuild your neighborhood." Of course, unlike manybeleaguered private citizens, the Dome received aid from FEMA, the NFL andinsurance companies.

Denise's emotionaljourney covered a longer distance than Doug's. "He was busy," she says."I was alone. I did a lot of soul-searching and realized I hadn't done muchmeaningful with my life." Denise had hardly ever lifted a civic finger.Nonetheless, in mid-February 2006 she accepted a $50,000 grant from formerHornets co-owner Ray Wooldridge and, with a core of volunteers, set up Beaconof Hope, a resource center for Lakewood neighbors still mostly scattered fromthe evacuation. A website,, allowed former residents ofLakewood and neighboring Lakeview to post messages and scroll through listingsof adjusters and contractors. Soon Thornton's group, at first based in hergarage, began lending out chain saws and weed whackers and making available theonly working phone, fax and Internet lines in the neighborhood. The volunteersfashioned new street signs. They helped people obtain building permits online.They even arranged with the Red Cross to feed anyone who came home to discoverno grocery stores for miles. By April the Thorntons had moved back into theirhouse. And before long Denise had deputized other New Orleanians to establishBeacons in their own districts. From its beginnings in the Thorntons' garage,Beacon of Hope has expanded to 11 neighborhoods--including, recently, poorerones in Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward.

As the Thorntonslearned in parallel about mold remediation and the foibles of contractors, theysaw each other only at the ends of exhausting days. When they did have time andenergy to talk, they tended to argue. She: It's obscene to spend almost $200million in mostly public funds on a stadium in a city where tens of thousandsof people have lost their homes! He: This is the symbol of the recovery!There'll be nobody to repopulate your city unless the world sees New Orleans onits feet again! She: Do you know how many houses we could build with even $1million? You're building a stadium for football when there's nobody here to goto a game! He: Before the storm every big sports event had a $100 millionto $400 million impact!

Eventually Denisecame around to Doug's point of view: that tourists pre-Katrina spent $5 billionannually, and the receipts on taxes alone provided more than a third of thecity's operating budget. New Orleans without the Dome and its big events wouldbe just a louche tourist village--Key West with a French accent. "TheSuperdome's rebirth was proof that the city was going to make it," Denisesays. "Who'd invest so much money in a city that wasn't?"

The rebuilding ofthe Dome was finished in nine months, right on schedule, and the roof was ready36 days early--thanks to mostly local contractors whose pride in their city andNFL team were on the line, and thanks to the grace of nature, which supplied arun of favorable weather. On the first anniversary of the storm, CNN came tospeak to the Thorntons. Approaching the Dome for an interview with SoledadO'Brien, Denise stopped cold at the loading dock, which had served as a stagingarea for special-needs cases. Nine months earlier, in Atlanta's Georgia Domeduring the relocated Sugar Bowl game, Denise had suffered a panic attack fromthe crowd noise after a touchdown. Now Doug had to coax her over the threshold.She broke down upon going in. But she went in.

Her husband hadhis own moment of closure last Sept. 25, when the Saints hosted theAtlanta Falcons in the first game back. Just before 7 p.m. he found himself onthe 10-yard line, looking up at the roofline in the southwest corner. Chancehad taken him to the precise spot from which he had watched the roof tear andthe debris fall. As the lights dimmed for the pregame entertainment, Thorntonfelt a spinal chill. The artificial gloaming matched the generator-illuminatedmoment of horror from a little more than a year earlier. Only now he couldn'thear the din of metal decking flapping in the wind, just U2 and Green Day andIrma Thomas belting out the national anthem. Thornton scanned the same swath ofseats once threatened by cascading debris. The people now radiated joy. "Irealized then that the Superdome was just a building," says Thornton, whocried until the lights came up. "Steel, glass and seats. And that thesefaces, these were happy faces."

Happy faces, to besure, but not the same faces. As unifying as the Saints are--around town you'relikely to see black fans in Drew Brees jerseys and white fans in ReggieBushes--Katrina highlighted the divide that cleaves New Orleans. Both thepoorest residents and the members of the Katrina diaspora are primarily black.As the Saints thrive in a smaller, whiter, richer city, many African-Americanevacuees who want to return and rebuild can't. Before the storm the Lower NinthWard, poor as it was, had a high rate of home ownership, as families passeddown houses through generations. Now most of those homes are gone, memorializedby weed-obscured slabs. FEMA won't provide a trailer until a site has power andpotable water, and city services are only beginning to make their way acrossthe Industrial Canal to the Lower Ninth and New Orleans East. If whiteprofessionals like the Thorntons give up on it, there may indeed be nocity--but without its ethnic flavor, New Orleans would be unrecognizable.

When city plannersspeak of "a smaller footprint" to be served by a drastically reducedtax base, they envision cutting loose much of the city east of the IndustrialCanal--and in that many black New Orleanians hear "ethnic cleansing" orsee a Trojan horse for an opportunistic landgrab. Before Katrina, there were117 schools in the city; this year there will be 82, 42 of them charterschools. The New Orleans Recreation Department, whose services are essential tothe one third of the population living in poverty, lost most of its facilitiesand 90% of its staff after the storm and is only now ramping back up thanks todonations, funding from nonprofits and settlements from FEMA and insurancecarriers. Since Katrina the New Orleans murder rate has more than doubled tobecome the nation's highest per capita, and virtually every homicide involves ayoung black man killing another as they jockey for turf in a redrawn city.

Watching this, RonGearing and Walter Tillman want to weep. Gearing, athletic director of theOrleans Parish public schools, and Tillman, who holds the same position for thestate-administered Recovery School District, are graduates of Dillard, thehistorically black college in the Gentilly section. Today men make up only 22%of the students at their alma mater, a percentage that they believe would soarwith the building of a football stadium on campus for both Dillard and NewOrleans high schools to use. Get high school kids into football, goes thethinking, and they'll set their eyes on the prize of a diploma and a chance toplay in college. Get Dillard to bring back football with the 26 scholarshipsallowed by the NAIA, and more boys would stay home for another four years.(Tulane, the lone NCAA Division I-A football school in town, has loftierentrance requirements and attracts mostly out-of-staters.) Get those boys tograduate from Dillard, and they'll follow the path of Gearing and Tillman asyeomen of the city.

"Every time Ilook in the paper and see a young face, the next word is 'gunshot,' "Gearing says. "It's a proven fact that those who participate inextracurricular activities graduate at a higher rate. Take a trumpet and giveit to a kid, and that kid will graduate because he played in the band. Or wecan [give him] a jersey, and he'll graduate because he was on a team. Acheerleader, a majorette, a dancer--those are the kids who make it. The kidswho don't embrace those things are the ones we lose."

For a basic15,000-seat stadium, Gearing and Tillman figure they'd need $15 million. Butfor the moment Dillard has no funds or plans to reintroduce the sport itdropped in the '60s. Hard by the London Avenue Canal, the campus suffered morethan $400 million in damage from flooding, looting and burning. Still,Gearing and Tillman have piqued the interest of several trustees, who areconducting a feasibility study and focus groups with students, faculty andGentilly residents. An architect has inspected several parcels and begun tosketch out plans. And though Gearing and Tillman haven't yet started to raisefunds, they talk up their vision to anyone they meet--including current andformer NFL players, and corporate sponsors of a high school all-star footballgame they organize that pits athletes from New Orleans against players fromother parts of Louisiana--and hear only encouraging words. Besides, they argue,the city sorely needs another high school football facility. Tad GormleyStadium is the only one back on line, and to play there a team must win alottery for field time and pay rent of $1,800 per game, plus a $1 surcharge forevery seat filled. "We're averaging six or seven murders a day, so failureis not an option," says Gearing. "We're going to get thisdone."

But there's adebate worth having, much like the one Doug and Denise Thornton engaged in,about the place of sports in neighborhoods that are just beginning to berebuilt. "You can't cross a bridge before you get to it," says DanWilliams, who grew up in the Lower Ninth and works with Common Ground, a relieforganization that has been in the ward since the week Katrina hit. "Firstof all, you have to have a house for a kid to live in. You have to have a storeto provide for the kid. You have to have a school. And look around." Hegestures at the western edge of the Lower Ninth. "There's not a home as faras the eye can see."

On the other hand,every time a school reopens, kids find their way to it. They may not be livingwith family, much less parents, but many seem hungry for community in theirupended lives--which puts the onus even more squarely on the Ron Gearings andWalt Tillmans. Before the storm all but one of New Orleans's 19 public highschools fielded football teams; this fall, the two public high schools thathave reopened and six recovery schools have full rosters, including McDonogh35, a public high school in the Treme neighborhood. Eight football teams take320 young people off the streets and put then on fields. Factor in eightcheerleading squads, and that number is closer to 500. "As soon asMcDonogh 35 opened, 900 students came," says Gearing. "Where theywere, I don't know--but 900 came. We want to get them back to a normal way oflife. Give them diversions. Give them athletics."

If sports have anysay in the matter, visitors will flock back to New Orleans. Virtually everynational-profile event that made the city a port of call pre-Katrina--from theSugar Bowl and the Mardi Gras Marathon to the PGA's Zurich Classic and the NCAAbasketball tournament--is back or plans to return. The NBA is bringing itsAll-Star Game in February, and last month's Arena Bowl reneged on a commitmentto Las Vegas to show solidarity with New Orleans and its AFL team, theVooDoo.

In fact, amplehotel space--which was largely untouched by floodwaters--and the rebuiltSuperdome ensured that the big events would come back. It's more surprisingthat the city's NFL team remains in town. Before the storm, Benson did littleto allay fans' fears that he planned to move the Saints, and if ever an ownerhad an excuse to light out for a new market, Benson did after Katrina. Playingout of temporary quarters in San Antonio, his team went 3-13, and before the2006 season soothsayers picked the Saints last, figuring it was only a matterof time before they moved to the Alamodome for good. In the weeks after thestorm New Orleanians used those ruined refrigerators at the curb aswhiteboards, spray-painting anything on their fevered minds; some graffitisaid, SEND U MAGOTS [TO] TOM BENSON [IN] TEXAS and DO NOT OPEN TOM BENSONINSIDE

Instead, byreaching last season's NFC title game, the Saints seemed to track a redemptionnarrative parallel to the city's, from Brees and running back Deuce McAllister,both rehabbing from surgery; to Bush, the running back with something to proveafter being passed over as the No. 1 pick; to receiver Marques Colston, aseventh-round draft choice who nearly became NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.In a town always ready to believe in the supernatural, fans point out that theDome stands near the site of an old cemetery, and that it took a voodoopriestess like Katrina to wash the evil spirits away.

That the Saintsare now so prosperous beyond the field seems to beg for an even morefantastical explanation. Despite New Orleans's size (the smallest market withtwo major pro teams), median household income ($27,355 a year before Katrina)and dearth of Fortune 500 businesses (the city has one, Entergy), the teamhas sold out all 137 suites and 68,000 season seats for this fall while sittingon a waiting list of more than 30,000. But then the region today is pulsingwith contractors, mostly male, ready to step out and spend when not workingovertime. "Discretionary stuff usually suffers during tough times, butthere are fewer ways to spend your money," Thornton says. "Thiscommunity will be rebuilding for a long time, and we're just now seeing some ofthe federal money trickle down. The big question is when and how that willtranslate into a broader corporate base."

It's a questionmost critical to the NBA Hornets, who in October begin their first full seasonback in the New Orleans Arena after spending the last two seasons in OklahomaCity. Unlike the Saints, the Hornets play a game that holds no special place inthe cultural heart of the Deep South. They don't enjoy revenue sharing withinthe NBA to the same extent the Saints do within the NFL, nor do they play alltheir games on weekends, when Saints fans routinely drive to the Dome fromthree neighboring states. Local sponsorship is more critical to NBA teams thanto their NFL counterparts, and many of the city's top businesses left after thestorm.

Like the Saints,the Hornets are trying to attract corporate support in part by foldingcommunity service projects into sponsorship packages. (This summer in theirHoops Tour, sponsored by Touro Hospital, Hornets players held free clinics forchildren aged seven to 14 in Louisiana and Mississippi.) Meanwhile Brees's ownBrees Dream Foundation has launched a $2.5 million campaign to raise fundsfor eight projects to benefit New Orleans youth. "What's keeping peoplefrom coming back is wondering if this is a safe place to raise children,"the Saints quarterback says. "Whether it be schools or athletic programs orinfrastructure, our biggest emphasis right now is on providing thosethings."

So: You in? Anyonewho is joins Brees, who with his wife, Brittany, bought a 100-year-old,wind-damaged fixer-upper in Uptown New Orleans, in the shadow of thelevees.

They join UNOguard Bo McCaleb, the Sun Belt player of the year, who'll play out hiseligibility at his hometown school, even though the Privateers' Lakefront Arenawon't reopen in time for his senior season because of dickering between FEMAand the state over repairs to the roof.

They join Miller,the UNO athletic director, who calls the schools that try to induce McCaleb totransfer--and spread rumors that UNO will drop basketball--"vultures,"even as he beams over the Privateers' third coach in two years, former Calassistant Joe Pasternack, who chose to come home even though (or perhapsbecause) his childhood home had to be gutted.

They join formerSaints executive Arnold Fielkow, whom New Orleanians elected to the citycouncil by 56% of the vote in part because they believed that Benson had firedhim for advocating too strenuously to keep the team in New Orleans.

They join Bensonhimself, who by current accounts isn't going anywhere--and who danced on thesideline as his Saints beat the Philadelphia Eagles for a berth in that NFCtitle game.

And they join theTimes-Picayune's David Meeks, the sports editor who led the team of reportersand photographers that, after a mandatory staff evacuation, sneaked back intothe city on a delivery truck and won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on thestorm's aftermath--all after Meeks swam through his kitchen to rescue his dog."I've learned that human beings have a tremendous homing instinct,"says Meeks, now the paper's city editor, who was among the first to return toLakeview to gut and rebuild. "People go back to where they come from. I'vealso learned that what you decide to do will determine what others do. My75-year-old neighbor pulled up one day and said to me, 'I knew you'd be back.'And now he's back."

Second liners arethose who fall in behind a brass band come Mardi Gras. A parade in New Orleansnever lacks for second liners, people ready to be caught up infollow-the-leader. In this clannish, convivial, stoop-sitting town, urban seatof a state with the nation's second-highest percentage of native-bornresidents, "You in?" is no idle question.

New orleans isn'tmerely a city still in peril. It's a place at even greater risk than before thestorm. A Category 3 hurricane whose eye struck well to the east, Katrina wasn'tthe Big One, notwithstanding the epic damage and suffering it caused because ofbreaches of the levees ("that frail breastwork of earth," as Mark Twainput it, "between the people and destruction"). Nonetheless, by wipingout more than 100 square miles of Louisiana coastal wetlands and the protectionthey afford, Katrina ensured that the next middling-strength hurricane to dealNew Orleans even a glancing blow will bring a storm surge roughly three feethigher--and the defenses that failed so miserably two years ago haven't beenrestored even to pre-Katrina strength. (This assessment doesn't account forglobal climate change. Forget New Orleans; at their current pace, rising sealevels will make Baton Rouge a coastal city by the end of this century.)

These factsshouldn't be taken as an argument not to rebuild. On the contrary: There's apreservationist case to be made, in which sports in New Orleans muscle theirway alongside cuisine and music--all worth saving because they make life worthliving, especially when people the world over want to sample that veryculture.

Besides, sportstell us that the longer the odds, the greater the incumbency on us to defythem. Otherwise, why get in the game at all? More than a dozen years ago thepresident of Eritrea, which was suffering a horrible famine, gratefullyaccepted donations of sports equipment because even in the midst of miserythose soccer balls served as the world's acknowledgment that his people were,as he put it, "more than just mouths to feed." Sports play their ownlife-affirming role for spectators too: In Sarajevo during the siege of1992-96, thousands of residents gathered in gyms to watch basketball games evenknowing that artillery in the hills girdling the city could take them out withone well-placed shell. It meant that much to them to see that their neighborswere still alive. Especially under extraordinary circumstances, sports offersomething more than the IV drip of subsistence.

Pick up a copy ofthe world's great francophone sports newspaper L'Equipe, and it seems thatevery other headline signals the exploit of some athlete or team with the verbs'imposer--to impose oneself. S'imposer is a far cry from laisser (to allow),the word in New Orleans's original tongue that best captures the place, withits bon temps and forgotten cares. But that's what sports bid us do: imposeourselves or go down trying. To emboss the bad times with a good-times seal. Tonever subordinate will to fate. "The potential is here," says GeorgeShinn, the Hornets' owner, who has returned with his wife to their downtowncondo. "It's up to us to bust our butts. I could be wrong, but I just havea gut feeling that this thing's going to work. And quite frankly, I'm tired ofmoving."

In Central City,where New Orleans's murder rate is highest, there's a story of a sixth-graderwho's also back. He returned from out of state to find the baseball diamond hegrew up on littered with flotsam. He set about clearing that field ofeverything, except for a car that had fetched up on the third base line. Forthat he enlisted neighbors to help him move it to the street, whereupon he andhis friends could see a clear path from third to the plate. If nothing else,that sixth-grader's story is a parable that reminds us that after any disasterthere's work to be done--work well worth doing, and doing with others--beforeyou can get back home.

Now where did weleave off? A paragraph, please, with the following words: Saints, preseason,football, running back.

Firsthand impressions of Alexander Wolff's trip to New Orleans, plus additionalphotos

"After the flooding," Thornton says, "Ithought, This is epic. It's over. Can we ever rebuild? I'm crying all the wayto Baton Rouge."

Get high school kids into football, goes the thinking,and they'll set their eyes on the prize of a diploma and a chance to play incollege.


Photographs by Lynn Johnson


The basketball blacktop at Alfred Lawless High, engulfed by a massive wave froma breached levee on Aug. 29, 2005, remains in ruins.


Photographs by Lynn Johnson


Cracked helmets still lie outside the boys' locker room at Lawless, whosefootball players have scattered to other schools.


Photographs by Lynn Johnson


The only high school in the Lower Ninth, Lawless--whose gym floor remainssubmerged in debris--is not yet scheduled to reopen.


Photographs by Lynn Johnson


Doug Thornton, supervisor of the Superdome, and his wife, Denise, found a newcalling in helping New Orleans rebuild.


Photographs by Lynn Johnson


Gearing (left) and Tillman, at Carver High, are fighting to give at-risk kids aplace to shine.


Photographs by Lynn Johnson


A play posted two years ago in the Lawless locker room, above the 5 1‚ÅÑ2-footwatermark the flood would leave, is a reminder of seasons lost.