Hawks Get First-Hand Look At Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

Hurricane Katrina victim Phyllis Montana LeBlanc
spoke to the Hawks about living through the devastation

Katrina: Two Years Later
Hawks get first-hand look at New Orleans two years after the storm

by Micah Hart

  • Photos of Hawks Visit

    NEW ORLEANS (Oct. 24, 2007) -- It's hard to put into words what it's like to look at the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. It's something you have to see for yourself to realize the magnitude of the damage caused by the storm and it's aftermath.

    That's what the Hawks did yesterday, most of them for the first time (only Speedy Claxton had been to New Orleans since the storm; he played for the Hornets in the first season post-Katrina, when they played most of their home games in Oklahoma City). They saw areas of New Orleans East, where literally several thousands of homes remain uninhabitable over two years later. They also saw the Lower Ninth Ward section of the city, where all that remains of what was once a heavily populated section are acres and acres of overgrown lots with scattered bricks the only remnants of the homes that once stood there.

    "We don't realize sometimes just how lucky we are," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson.

    Katrina affected many areas other than New Orleans - the Mississippi gulf coast was almost totally destroyed and Alabama took a significant hit as well - but New Orleans is the spot that has gained the most attention nationally because of it's stature in the American cultural landscape. And when you hear that maybe half the population of the city has yet to return since the storm, it dawns on you that the city they call the Big Easy may never be again what it once was.

    As I said in the weekly podcast on Monday, we have a tendency in this country to mourn a tragedy for a short period of time, then move on. Sadly, there is always something else to come at us to divert our attention - just look at the situation right now with the wildfires in the area around San Diego, and the water-shortage issue at home here in Georgia. It's easy to put the horrors of what happened to the people affected by Hurricane Katrina on the backburner and just assume that everything is ok. But to travel around down here, you clearly see that everything is not OK.

    It's been over two years, but to drive through the bulk of New Orleans East, you'd swear it happened a few weeks ago.

    "That really surprised me," said Hawks rookie Al Horford, who played in the NCAA Tournament in New Orleans in 2005 and saw some of the devastation then. "I thought after two years things would be in much better shape. I was really stunned to see the conditions that a lot of the city is still in."

    The team got an up-close-and-personal look at how residents have been affected when they met with Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a resident featured prominently in Spike Lee's HBO documentary "When The Levees Broke" (a must-see for anyone interested in what happened to the city in the aftermath of the storm).

    Hawks VP of Public Relations Arthur Triche, who spent the first 26 years of his life in New Orleans, arranged for the team to visit her at her sister's house, where she and her husband have lived in a FEMA trailer (her "FEMA condominium" as she called it) for the last two years.

    "New Orleans is my home, and I'll never leave," she said, echoing the fierce pride most of the New Orleans population feels for their city. "We are committed to rebuilding it and getting it back to the place it was before. We just need help to make that happen."

    LeBlanc exhorted the Hawks to contribute in any way they could, either with their time or money, because it all makes a difference. Despite her situation, she maintains a positive outlook that seems almost hard to believe given what she's been through.

    "I don't know how she did it," wondered Hawks G Anthony Johnson. "I can't even fathom what it was like to go through what they went through."

    Indeed, it is very difficult to imagine living through the chaos.

    New Orleans Police Deputy Superintendent John Bryson gave the team a glimpse into what it was like, captivating the team as he served as their tour guide (if you want to call it that) into the lower ninth. He explained what happened when the Industrial Canal burst, causing water to shoot into the neighborhood at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, and showed waterlines on some of the houses that reached upwards of 20 feet off the ground.

    Bryson also took questions during the tour, enlightening the team on looting and the lack of evacuation leading up to the storm. He took issue with much of the mainstream media coverage, explaining that most of the looting was for essentials, and those who did steal TVs and stereos were unable to get the merchandise out of the city and were therefore caught. Similarly, he noted that most of the population didn't refuse to leave - they couldn't afford to.

    Afterwards, Hawks G Salim Stoudamire voiced his thoughts on seeing the devastation.

    "It made my stomach churn," he said. "These people had no hope."

    Though the storm has long since passed, the people still deal with what happened on a daily basis. And though much of the country has moved on, the residents of New Orleans know how important it is to keep their city on the national radar. That's why it was so important to Triche that the team see how much further the rebuilding effort has to go.

    "I hope the little glimpse the team got will make them realize how fortunate they are," said Triche. "It's important that these guys see what the people here face."

    Judging by the looks on their faces afterwards, I'd say there is no doubt that if they didn't before, they certainly do now.

    FEMA trailers outside of a house in New Orleans East

    New Orleans resident Phyllis Montana LeBlanc met with the Hawks to talk about her experiences

    The Hawks listen as LeBlanc tells them about what happened during the Hurricane

    The guys get a look at LeBlanc's "FEMA condominium"

    Hawks broadcaster Steve Smith, Josh Smith, and Speedy Claxton pose with a New Orleans resident

    Joe Johnson presented LeBlanc with a signed jersey and two tickets to the Hawks-Hornets game

    Assistant coaches Larry Drew and Alton Lister thank LeBlanc for telling her story

    A look at the lower ninth ward as the bus entered the area

    A church in the lower ninth ward

    Most of the houses were destroyed completely, but some still wait to be demolished

    LeBlanc was the team's guest at the Hawks-Hornets preseason game