The Hornets and Hurricane Katrina: Five Years Later

Five years ago, Louisiana native Christian Green experienced what many sports fans would consider a dream scenario. On Aug. 10, 2005, Green arrived for his first day of work in the information technology department of his hometown NBA team, the New Orleans Hornets.

Less than three weeks later, Green and dozens of other Hornets employees were scattered across the southern portion of the United States. Members of the organization were forced to evacuate New Orleans due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, including severe flooding that resulted from widespread failure of the city’s levee system.

Prior to the days of widespread usage of Internet social-networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, phone calls were the primary method of communication. That fact created a significant problem: Since Hornets employees used telephone numbers that were within the non-functioning 504 area code, it took over a week to track down personnel and confirm that everyone had made it through Katrina unscathed. There were no family-related losses within the Hornets organization resulting from what locals refer to today simply as “The Storm,” but the course of the team’s next half-decade was irrevocably altered.

“No one could have predicted what happened,” remembered Green, who evacuated to Texas prior to Katrina making landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. “No one could’ve anticipated that the levees were going to fail and cause the catastrophic damage that took place. I remember in the week before Katrina, the article about a hurricane possibly coming to New Orleans was on the fifth page of the Times-Picayune (newspaper).”

Furthermore, after listening to annual warnings of tropical storms in the Gulf South that proved to be much less severe than initially anticipated, many Louisiana natives became skeptical when they were repeatedly told that a particular storm might be dangerous.

“We had heard about the possibility of a hurricane every year,” Green said.Immediate upheaval
With the city of New Orleans inundated by flood water in the days after Katrina, the NBA quickly realized it would be impossible for the Hornets to play home games in the Crescent City in the fall of 2005. On Sept. 21, 2005, the Hornets and the NBA jointly announced that the franchise would temporarily move to Oklahoma City and play the bulk of the 2005-06 home schedule there.

From an organizational standpoint, the storm and subsequent move to the Sooner State led to immediate upheaval. For one, among about 90 total employees and scores of Louisiana natives, about a dozen workers opted not to relocate to Oklahoma, creating job openings that needed to be filled quickly (the Hornets’ regular season home opener was less than six weeks away). For another, there were thousands of local fans who had evacuated to other parts of the South and needed to be tracked down by the team’s ticketing and sales staffs. In the aftermath of Katrina, that process was far from scientific. The Hornets used whatever contact information they had in their computer files, including ticket buyers’ previous e-mail addresses or phone numbers. Unfortunately, a percentage of the latter were no longer in service. Eventually the vast majority of Hornets fans who had purchased tickets prior to Katrina were contacted, but a small segment of the team’s avid fan base essentially disappeared. In cases where the Hornets were unable to make contact with a ticket buyer, it was likely because that fan never returned to the region following Katrina.

Although it was estimated that the population of New Orleans was halved by Katrina – with the number of residents in the city dropping from 500,000 to about 250,000 – that statistic is misleading from one critical standpoint: many of those who left the city limits moved to the surrounding area. For example, suburban Jefferson Parish, located west of New Orleans, experienced such a substantial increase in new residents after Katrina that it became the most populous parish in Louisiana. According to U.S. census estimates in 2008, the population of the metropolitan New Orleans area was 1.13 million, compared to 1.30 million two months before Katrina. A return greeted by national skepticism

Since making their full-time return to New Orleans in the summer of 2007, the Hornets have captured the first division title in team history, made two playoff appearances and compiled a regular season record of 142-104. After everything that’s transpired during that timeframe, it’s easy to forget that many doubted that the Hornets could succeed in post-Katrina New Orleans. That was one fundamental difference between the Hornets’ return to the Big Easy and that of their neighbors across Girod Street, the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. Few were concerned about the long-term future of the Saints, particularly after they had sold out their entire 2006 home schedule before that season’s opening kickoff. While the Hornets’ first home game in 2007-08 was played on a Wednesday in late October vs. the Sacramento Kings, the Saints opened their post-Katrina tenure in the Superdome with a much-hyped Monday Night Football game against their NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons.

One well-respected NBA columnist wrote this about the Hornets in December 2007: “The general consensus around the NBA is the return experiment will fail... It seems inevitable, and probably the sooner the better for the basketball fate of the Hornets.”

Early in that season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made several harsh comments about the Hornets and their inability to draw large crowds, despite compiling one of the best starts on the court in franchise history. However, by the All-Star break, Cuban had done a virtual 180, telling the Times-Picayune that “the Hornets are playing better than anyone in the NBA right now. I don’t doubt that by the end of the season they will be filling the Arena.”

Cuban’s drastic change in opinion proved to be prophetic, because the Hornets closed the 2007-08 regular season and playoffs by selling out 13 consecutive games. They finished that memorable season with a total of 20 capacity crowds, easily setting a team record in the New Orleans era of the franchise.Hurricane Gustav
In the three-plus years since the Hornets returned full-time to New Orleans in May 2007, there has only been one instance in which members of the organization were ordered to evacuate due to a hurricane threat. In August 2008, weather forecasters initially projected that Hurricane Gustav might eventually become a Category-5 storm, which would’ve been more severe than Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately by Aug. 31 the storm had weakened to a Category-2 and only did minimal damage in the metropolitan area. Within a week, the team’s entire staff had returned to New Orleans, to continue preparations for the 2008-09 NBA season.

Some portions of southern Louisiana were severely impacted by Gustav, however. In Terrebonne Parish, for example, there were extended power outages and significant damage to homes.

Overall, Gustav was estimated to cause $7 billion in damages. Depending partly on how it was measured and what was tabulated as a storm-related incident, there were a reported 53 deaths in the United States in the aftermath of Gustav.

As a result of the catastrophic infrastructural failures that had taken place during and after Katrina – most notably, the Katrina-caused shutdown of the 504 area code – by ’08 the Hornets had developed considerably more extensive evacuation and emergency plans for their 100-plus employees. The organization now has a seemingly fail-safe way of communicating with employees, having learned an instructive lesson in ’05. In the days and weeks following Katrina, individual workers were forced to start online group message boards in an attempt to connect with other Hornets employees. Like many Gulf South companies who were impacted by Katrina, the Hornets are now infinitely better equipped to react to post-disaster scenarios and coordinate crisis communication among staff members.

A New Orleans business
When Katrina reached the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005, the Hornets had only played three full seasons in New Orleans. That wasn’t nearly enough time to establish themselves as part of the fabric of the city (by comparison, the NFL’s Saints debuted in 1967). Undeniably, Katrina set the Hornets back immeasurably in their efforts to gain a foothold in New Orleans following a 2002 move from Charlotte. In fact, partly due to the somewhat confusing nature of the two interim seasons when the Hornets were based in Oklahoma City – they played three games in New Orleans in 2005-06, then six more in 2006-07 – some casual fans were not aware that the team had returned to NOLA permanently in the summer of 2007.

On the court, the Hornets’ 105 combined regular season victories in 2007-08 and 2008-09 tied a franchise record over any two-year span. The 2007-08 team came within one victory of the Hornets’ first-ever conference finals appearance, creating many long-term fans and generating unprecedented local interest in the team.

Although wins and losses are critical to the success of any professional sports franchise, it’s much easier to control what happens off the court. The Hornets have worked extensively over the past three years to carve out a greater presence within tight-knit New Orleans, as active as any NBA franchise in terms of community-related projects. The Hornets’ in-game entertainment has been ranked No. 1 in recent years by the NBA, an element of game nights you don’t see on TV, but one that helps attract and bring back casual fans. Their average ticket price is also one of the lowest in the league.

Among their various initiatives, however, few have resonated as well locally as the team’s “Fleur de Bee” logo that was introduced in 2007. Like the Saints’ longstanding black-and-gold fleur de lis logo, the Fleur de Bee incorporates the universal symbol of the city of New Orleans. In 2009-10, the Hornets also introduced brand-new Mardi Gras-themed uniforms that pay tribute to the world-renowned local celebration.

It’s virtually impossible to overstate the significance of the connection many New Orleanians have with their hometown, a feeling that seems only to have deepened after the tragedies of Katrina and the April 2010 oil-spill disaster in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. New players to the Hornets’ roster often comment that they can’t remember witnessing as much local love as what they instantly see in New Orleans.

“I’ve never been in a city where the people are just so proud of their city,” Hornets center Emeka Okafor said early in the 2009-10 regular season. “That’s a pretty cool thing.”

As team president Hugh Weber has often noted, one of the Hornets organization’s primary objectives is to become a New Orleans institution, part of the culture in a city many people describe as America’s most unique.

“Philosophically, the first time we came to New Orleans the attitude was ‘We are an NBA team that happens to be in New Orleans,’ ” Weber told Yahoo! Sports in 2008. “We made very certain this time that everybody understood that we are a New Orleans business that happens to be in the NBA.”

Five years later
For many people within the Hornets’ organization of 120 current employees, the team’s post-Katrina New Orleans era represents the opportunity to finally establish a permanent place to call home. Team staff members who’ve been with the organization since at least ’02 have moved to a different city three times over a span of eight years, with Katrina the reason behind two of those changes of address.

Hornets equipment manager David Jovanovic, one of three employees who’ve worked for the franchise for all of its 22 seasons and three different cities, was personally impacted by Katrina as much as anyone affiliated with the team. His home in nearby Slidell sustained staggering flood and wind damage after the storm. Over a period of seven months in 2005 and 2006 while he was working for the Hornets in Oklahoma City, Jovanovic’s home was completely rebuilt. He was able to return full-time to the residence when the Hornets came back to New Orleans in the summer of 2007.

“Because we were displaced like everybody else, it really created a bond between us and people in this area,” Jovanovic said. “We know as a franchise what the fans and the people of New Orleans went through. We experienced it as individuals and a franchise. It made for a natural connection. We know what it was like being displaced. We were all displaced ourselves.”

Jovanovic calls the first post-Katrina New Orleans season one of the most memorable of his lengthy career, both on and off the court. The Hornets’ 56-win regular season and division title unfolded as well as anyone could’ve imagined, providing instant momentum for the franchise.

“We were making so many strides as a franchise,” Jovanovic said of the Hornets’ first three seasons in New Orleans prior to the storm. “But because of Katrina, a lot of that was disrupted.

“With the success of the team (in 2007-08), that really created a bond with the fans here. The team had the 2008 All-Star Game and a lot of things that were going on that were all positive for the team and the city.

“Over the past two years, we’ve been building upon that and are making progress as a franchise in New Orleans. It shows that we’re really putting down roots here and that the future is bright.”
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