Katrina +10: The trials and triumphs of recovery
Aug. 24, 2005: I was at Pan American Stadium for St. Augustine's football photo shoot to talk about the season with head coach Tyrone Payne. I noticed how high the grass was just one day before the first jamboree game.
One of the team’s best players was Chad Jones. Little did I know that this would be the last time I would see him wearing a Purple Knights’ uniform.
Aug. 25: I watched curiously as the newly opened Desire Street Academy played its first jamboree game against Clark at Pan Am. I spoke with its proud headmaster, Danny Wuerffel, about the team’s future, not knowing that it would be in Baton Rouge and not New Orleans and that it would last just a few years.
Aug. 26: En route to Archbishop Hannan for its jamboree, I stopped at a restaurant on West Judge Perez Drive. While waiting for my order to arrive, my attention caught one of many televisions.
An enormous storm was slowly churning its way up the Gulf of Mexico. Like thousands who live in southeast Louisiana, I prayed that it would turn away.
I watched Redeemer-Seton’s game against Pearl River and then decided it was time to reconsider Jamboree Week. I needed to prepare for the unimaginable, although inevitable.
Three days later, Hurricane Katrina reached the Louisiana shoreline, and life in the Big Easy changed forever.
There was no longer a need to cut the grass at Pan Am or anywhere else. The little restaurant in Chalmette was leveled. Today, I couldn’t tell you exactly where it was located.
The buildings at Redeemer-Seton, St. Mary’s Academy, Holy Cross and Hannan sustained maximum damage. I visited them all several weeks later. I felt I was viewing the sarcophagus of old friends.
The first floors at Jesuit and St. Augustine schools were flooded. Like most everything else, football season was on indefinite hold.
Classrooms on the fly
Families were spread to all corners of the state and U.S. When I returned from sanctuary in Lafayette, I saw uniform shirts with logos from several schools walking the corridors of Archbishop Shaw.
In Metairie, Archbishop Rummel became a transition school and was coed for the first time in its 43-year history. It even fielded a girls’ basketball team.
Xavier Prep took in students from the devastated St. Mary’s Academy and St. Augustine and operated under the acronym, The MAX (Mary-Augustine-Xavier).
Six-hundred Jesuit students attended night classes at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie (300 more were at Strake Jesuit in Houston). The Dunham School in Baton Rouge became the classrooms for Holy Cross students.
There was little normality remaining until principals and coaches decided they must have a football season of some kind, if at all possible.
LHSAA Commissioner Tommy Henry made it possible by proclaiming New Orleans a single attendance zone. He allowed students to participate in athletics at any school they were attending in this critical advent of recovery.
Let the games begin
First back online was St. Charles Catholic. A team that combined its own students with other athletes from closed city Catholic schools, the Comets played their first game on Sept. 10, defeating Jackson, 42-0. They would be the most successful Catholic school in the area by making it to the Class 2A championship game in Shreveport.
On Sept. 25, Pope John Paul met Live Oak. Four days later, Holy Cross fielded a makeshift team after salvaging whatever equipment was above the waterline in the battered gym.
Athletic Director Greg Battistella bought additional equipment from a sporting goods store in Baton Rouge on the promise that the merchant would be paid in time. Using a truck as its dressing room, the team traveled to Ouachita for a game. Shaw faced Walker on Oct. 7, Rummel followed with a game against Grace King eight days later.
The first Catholic League game took place on Oct. 22 when Jesuit and Holy Cross assembled enough players to face each other for the 83rd consecutive year. Jesuit head coach Vic Eumont returned from his refuge in California to coach his team for this traditional game.
The game was made possible when Brother Martin AD Barry Hebert provided the helmets and pads to Jesuit, one of his school’s biggest rivals. Holy Cross won the game, played before 2,000 spectators at Yenni Stadium, by the score of 20-10.
On that same day, De La Salle and Rummel met. Cheering for the Cavaliers was a group of National Guardsmen, whose unit was being housed on the De La Salle campus. And on Oct. 29, Brother Martin and De La Salle met.
In all, the local Catholic schools played 15 games. Rummel, Shaw and Holy Cross made the state playoffs and were eliminated the second
week. A year later, Shaw dropped down to Class 4A and played for back-to-back state championships. Reclassification dropped Holy Cross and De La Salle to lower levels due to smaller enrollment. Soon St. Augustine fell out of the Catholic League, leaving just Jesuit, Brother Martin and Rummel as 5A schools.
But the Catholic schools prevailed over tragedy and have since enjoyed a magnificent revival. Holy Cross built a new campus in Gentilly. Its baseball field rests on the former site of Redeemer-Seton. Hannan moved to Goodbee, and its student population is growing larger every year. And the Catholic League is back together and winning state championships again – Rummel in 2012 and 2013 and Jesuit in 2014.
Xavier Prep has become St. Katharine Drexel, and the Academy of Our Lady is beginning a new future on its shiny, new campus. All the Catholic girls’ schools are highly com- petitive – with each other and
throughout the state.
The public schools were not so lucky. Gone are Abramson, Kennedy, Reed, Lawless, St. Bernard and Booker T. Washington in the wake of Katrina. Most were replaced by charter schools. Ten years later, Landry-Walker is the only Class 5A public school in a city that once had two large public school districts.
The nightmare is over, and hopefully we have awakened to a new and exciting era of high school sports.