Links: The Battle of New Orleans

by Lang Whitaker

This weekend the NBA is celebrating New Orleans, but it wasn’t always that simple.

Back in March of 2006, I spent a few days down in New Orleans to write a story for SLAM. About six months earlier, Hurricane Katrina had come and gone, taking most of New Orleans with it. When the NBA finally returned to New Orleans, I went down to cover the return of the Hornets. First, here’s some of what I wrote on The Links from New Orleans that weekend…

You can see with your eyes, you can smell it with your nose, you can feel it with you heart, but explaining New Orleans with your words is something completely different. But I’m going to do my best.

Like the rest of the world, I watched in amazement when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans back in August/September. I was supposed to be heading to Florida for a family vacation that week, and for a while Katrina was headed right at Florida’s Gulf Coast. But it turned West at the last second, so we went on down to Florida and spent a week at the beach watching CNN and Fox News with our mouths dropped at the devastation that had hit New Orleans.

Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to visit New Orleans. The reporter in me wanted to visit, to see first-hand what had happened, to ask questions about it to the people who lived through it. And the human in me wanted to go down and spend some money and do whatever little bit I could to help their economy.

Our flight landed Saturday morning around 9:30 a.m., and by 10:00 I was in the rental car, steering toward my hotel in the French Quarter. Of course, as soon as you leave the airport area, your eyes are wide open, scanning the area around I-10 for…well, anything. The images broadcast by all the networks were so shocking, so jarring, I had no idea what to expect.

And for the most part, from the airport down to the French Quarter, there wasn’t a lot out of the ordinary to see. There were a few houses with bright blue tarps on their roofs with “FEMA” stamped on them, but otherwise things looked pretty normal. We got into downtown and saw the Superdome, where the roof looked to be repaired and had a huge sign reading “Returning in Sept. Go Saints!” hanging on the side of the building. Behind the Superdome is the New Orleans Arena, which looked fine.

It was relatively early to be out on a Saturday morning in the French Quarter, especially for the day after St. Patrick’s Day, so the little streets of the Quarter were mostly deserted, except for strings of crushed green beads scattered everywhere.

I checked into our hotel and headed right back out, walking a couple of blocks over to Cafe Du Monde, a beignets and coffee shop that’s been around in New Orleans since 1862. Nothing like hot beignets and a cafe au lait to get you going in the morning. If you don’t know, recognize.

After about an hour walking off breakfast, I went to the end of the Quarter and met up with one of my friend’s brothers, a dude named Francis. I’d never met Francis before, but my friend’s family is from Louisiana and Francis has lived in New Orleans for a while now. (You can tell their family is Cajun because their last name ends with “youx.”) While I wanted to see the areas of New Orleans affected by Katrina, I also wanted to see it through the eyes of someone who’d been there. Francis and his family had evacuated the morning before the storm hit, and they had friends whose houses were demolished.

We hopped in Francis’ car and drove up to Metarie, which was mostly unaffected and, on this day, was bustling with activity. As Francis explained to us, with so many businesses and restaurants in downtown New Orleans still hurting and still recovering, unaffected areas like Metarie are booming.

See, even though the French Quarter and downtown areas weren’t destroyed by floodwaters, they were affected because so many people left the city that there’s no one to work anywhere, and not enough customers around to take advantage of everything that was available before the storm. I later picked up the weekly paper and the classified section in the back was packed with listings, in pretty much every sector you could think of. Restaurants, hotels, even the paper was hiring. A day later, I drove past a Wendy’s restaurant over near Tulane and they had a huge banner hanging in front of the restaurant promising at least $250 a week for any employees. And all of that doesn’t even account for places that may have lost power, for instance, and had all their food rot and melt and get into their walls or floors and ruin their building in some other ways. Basically, there’s a lot to deal with there.

Anyway, we got over into a district called Lakeview, which was a mostly white, upper-middle class neighborhood. Until Katrina. The houses are still standing for the most part, but there were huge holes in the walls, dangling wires, all kinds of disaster visible. There were a few cars that had been flipped or deposited in strange places, but for the most part the neighborhood was starting to be cleaned up, as at least the roads were driveable. None of the houses were inhabitable, though.

A few miles away, we went to a home that belongs to some friends of Francis. That family had evacuated with Francis’ family, and while Francis’ house was fine, their friends’ house was destroyed. We went inside the house and walked around, and it was completely gone. Their lives were there all around us, literally in pieces. According to Francis, they’d tried to salvaged some clothes but had been unable to wash the smell out.

As we drove around, there were two things you learned to look for. First of all, it was impossible to miss the spray paint on the doors. After the hurricane, the various rescue teams that came into the city adhered to a code, which they spray painted on the front of each house to signify that the house had been checked for dead bodies.

More invisible were the water lines — if Francis hadn’t pointed them out to me, I might not have noticed them. But look closely and there they were, rings of dirt around the outside of many houses, displaying just how high the floodwater rose. It was hard to imagine the houses filled that high with water, but even harder to imagine the streets of the neighborhoods that deep with water.

Eventually we got over to the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood that was completely razed by the floodwater. How did this happen? Well, as I understand it, the Hurricane acted like a huge blender. It hit Lake Ponchatrain and parts of the Mississippi River and pushed the water backwards up through the canals that were supposed to drain the city in case of rain, with such force and speed that the levees which were supposed to safeguard against flooding broke, not just in the Ninth Ward but all over the city. The Lower Ninth Ward got hit particularly hard because floodwalls broke on two sides, creating something like a whirlpool among the houses.

Today, seven months after Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward is still in shambles. Some houses look like they just buckled from the pressure, some houses were sitting in the middle of streets, some houses were just completely gone. I walked over to the foundation of one house, where the house was missing, and stood in what must have been the kitchen, as vibrant floor tiles were still visible. Cars were all over the place—in houses, under houses, stacked on top of each other. What made it so amazing was not just the destruction, but the size and the completeness (if that’s a word) of what had happened. I don’t know the exact area, but it must have been at least a square mile. It was at least as far as the eye could see.

We also made it over to the New Orleans Municipal Marina, where boats and yachts were stacked up like dirty dishes in a sink. I’d never seen a stack of boats before.

I videotaped and photographed everything I could, and I put together this video. Music is by New Orleans native Ellis Marsalis…

After about six hours of seeing the worst that New Orleans had to offer, I needed to get lifted, so I asked Francis to take us to his favorite spot so I could buy him a meal for spending his day with me. We ended up in some dark bar where we chowed on crawfish, shrimp and po’boy sandwiches.

By now it was about 4:00 p.m., and it had been a long day — considering I’d woken up in New York City about 12 hours earlier. Francis took us back to our hotel, and I watched about 30 minutes of NCAA action before getting my stuff together to head over to the Hornets/Nuggets game.

After the game, I made it back over to hotel pretty quickly. I ran up to my room and changed into something a little nicer, then went down and asked the concierge if she could recommend somewhere nearby to eat.

No, she said, because everything closes early. That’s right — 10:15 p.m. on a Saturday night in the middle of the New Orleans tourist district, and we couldn’t find a restaurant that was open. I finally found a little Italian spot a mile away that was great. Still, when you can’t eat dinner in the entertainment district of a city past 10 o’clock, you know the city still has a ways to go before things are back to normal.

I’m not trying to bash New Orleans, and I’m sorry if this comes across as sounding negative. Because actually, I loved New Orleans. I’d never been before, but after spending all day Sunday driving and walking around, and then going to dinner earlier (we had an awesome meal), I spent about 15 minutes trying to convince my parents that they should go to New Orleans for their next vacation.

And I’ll say the same to all of you. New Orleans still needs a lot of help, and one of the best ways you can help out is by going down there and shelling out some cash. Pronto.

That’s how I wrote it all down at the time.

One month later, I wrote the following feature for SLAM, which ran in SLAM 99…

Fullcourt Trap
Nine months after Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets find themselves caught between their rabid new fans and their devastated hometown. We went down to New Orleans to see just how real it is.

by Lang Whitaker

If you check out a road map of the United States, Interstate 10 is a long squiggle, connecting California to Florida. I-10 is anchored in Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans. Hop on I-10 at the Louis Armstrong International Airport and make the twenty-minute drive east into downtown New Orleans, and everything looks pretty normal. A few houses with roof damage are patched up with bright blue sheets of plastic stamped “FEMA.” All of that damage from Hurricane Katrina that we heard about and saw on the cable networks? Hard to see anything from here.

Then pull off the interstate and you can’t miss it. Just below the elevated highway rests miles and miles of cars, at least one thousand of them, all rusted out and stripped of any working parts. On many of them, the water line from Katrina’s floodwater traces a murky brown ring around the body. This is where the cars wrecked by Katrina have been laid to rest, at least until someone can figure out what to do with them. Out of sight, not out of mind.

Hurricane Katrina has challenged America, not only the way we react to massive tragedy on our own shores, but also how we perceive and reconcile the wildly varied classes that exist, sometimes silently, within our society. More relevant to this magazine, Katrina has plunged the New Orleans Hornets, the NBA and two entire fan bases into a strange, strange situation, with an unwinnable decision looming. “I’m just glad it’s not my choice to make,” says Hornets guard JR Smith, “because I’d hate to be the bad guy.”

March 18, 2006. 9:00 a.m. It’s an overcast Saturday morning in New Orleans, just hours after the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have ended. The narrow streets of the French Quarter glisten in the heavy morning air, as sunlight peeks through the clouds and reflects off the pavement through spilled green beer and crushed strands of beads.

New Orleans has a rich history, unlike anywhere else in America. The French founded it in 1718, though Native Americans had used it for years prior as a central trading post. In 1763, the Spanish gained control, and then Napoleon ran the takeover in 1801 before selling it to the nascent United States in 1803. Since then, it has remained a cultural melting pot, perhaps the most diverse city in the States. It’s vividly reflected in the city’s architecture, citizens and vibe.

The Hornets settled in New Orleans in 2002, after a bitter departure from Charlotte. Fans in Carolina had supported the team, and for several years they led the NBA in attendance, averaging at least 23,000 fans per game for their first decade. As other franchises started getting new arenas with higher built-in revenues, Hornets owner George Shinn faced off against the local Charlotte government and demanded a new home. Charlotte declined his terms, and he moved the team to New Orleans in the summer of ’02.

After two declining seasons, Byron Scott was brought in to run the show. Older heads like Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn were moved, and a new team was shaped around Desmond Mason and versatile forward David West. Chris Paul was drafted, and last summer, the fans — according to Joe Jevic, who runs the popular Hornets fan website — were “filled with hope.”

And then August 29, 2006, happened, when Hurricane Katrina caused the most expensive natural disaster in the history of the United States. Before I left for New Orleans, I emailed my man Branford Marsalis, SLAM subscriber and saxophone genius. I asked Branford where I should go to see what Katrina had done to his hometown.

“It’s easy to find, dude,” he replied. “Just drive outside uptown or beyond downtown and it’s everywhere else. Take the roads on the edge of the French Quarter (Desire St.) to Elysian Fields Av., turn left and give it 10 minutes. Once you get over the overpass you’ll see the deal. Or you can turn right when you get to Franklin St. and see more of it. Take I-10 East and get off at Morrison Rd. near Southern University New Orleans (SUNO). It’s everywhere…”

Hurricane Katrina rushed through New Orleans on August 28, 2006. A day later, a storm surge drawn from Lake Pontchartrain overflowed the city’s system of levees, which were designed to move water out of the city in case of rain. Instead, they ended up transporting water into the city, so much so that the levees broke in several places. While the entire city was flooded to varying degrees, several neighborhoods — including the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview — were hit hardest. The Times-Picayune reported that over 1,000 New Orleanians were killed, most of whom were unable to escape the rising toxic waste that poured right into their homes and drowned them.

Now, nine months after Katrina, the damage is estimated at close to $100 billion dollars. And the Lower Ninth Ward is still a disaster area. People who once lived here are gone, maybe to Houston, maybe up North, or maybe they didn’t survive at all. Houses are scattered across the hood, some sitting in the middle of the roads like something out of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Katrina affected everyone in and around New Orleans. With fewer people in town, hundreds of businesses closed, and some are just now re-opening. Houses with even just a few inches of floodwater had to be dried out, sanitized and checked for rot damage or toxic mold. Hornets captain PJ Brown’s home in nearby Slidell took on two feet of floodwater, and still needs to have the entire bottom floor rebuilt before he and his family can move back in.

“I had my first chance to go down to the Lower Ninth Ward the other day, and it’s overwhelming,” Brown says. “I live thirty minutes east of there, and it’s just…it’s overwhelming, man. It’s like something out of a movie or a nightmare. You never think anything like this could happen or be like this in our country, especially in your hometown. It’s real.”

In the aftermath of Katrina, while city and state officials tried to figure out how to start restoring the city to anything close to what it was before the storm, the NBA started moving. On September 21, the NBA announced that the Hornets would be playing 35 regular season games in Oklahoma City. “The decision to play elsewhere wasn’t a big deal in and of itself — everyone in the New Orleans area knew that the region would not physically be ready for opening day, so a temporary venue was seen as a necessity,” says Jevic.

For the 2004-05 season, New Orleans finished last in the NBA in home attendance, probably mostly a function of having one of the worst records in the NBA. Yet things were looking up: After drafting Chris Paul, the Hornets announced they’d sold over $1 million worth of new season tickets.

But in Oklahoma City, the Hornets have found an immediately rabid fan base. Through early April they were averaging 18,081 fans a night, almost double last season’s actual average attendance, and the OKC crowds have been wildly supportive of the surprising Hornets, who’ve been in the Western Conference playoff race all season. “It’s amazing,” says one Hornets staffer, “like a college atmosphere. Nothing like I’ve seen in the NBA.”

The NBA recently announced that the Hornets will play 35 games in Oklahoma city next season, and owner George Shinn has loudly trumpeted his interest in finding Oklahoma-based investors for his franchise. Even the coach has gotten into the act: “I would love to stay here and play in Oklahoma City next year,” Byron Scott said. Even though next year now appears settled, there are still long-term questions lingering.

David Stern has been resolutely against any talks of a permanent move, saying that the NBA will do everything it can to ensure the Hornets remain in New Orleans. Others aren’t so positive, including Charles Barkley: “They should stay in Oklahoma City. That’s one of the easiest decisions in the world. They’re still pulling dead people out of the rubble.”

“Let’s just say that I’m extremely angry about any talks of a permanent relocation,” says Jevic, speaking for many New Orleans fans. ”Actually, it pisses me off to no end and the people who advocate the team’s relocation to OKC are nothing more than common looters.”

It’s Saturday night in N’awlins, and the Hornets are back in town to take on the Nuggets, playing the second of their three games in The Big Easy. An hour before tip-off, the stands are already filling up, and a buzz is palpable in the arena.

“The first house I owned was down here,” JR Smith says, sitting on the Hornets bench during shootaround, glancing around the stands. “When I got here, people took to me so well, and I’ve grown so many friendships here. So it’s definitely like home to me. But right now, playing in Oklahoma, they’re treating us real well. There’s no telling what the team’s gonna do.”

During pregame introductions, the Hornets are billed as “your New Orleans Hornets,” though the “OKC” patch on their jerseys serves as a silent reminder that things aren’t so simple. Byron Scott is aggressively booed by the New Orleanians, who obviously recall his earlier statements. Otherwise, the fans stay vocal and supportive throughout, and a late Hornets run gets the gym jumping. Though the Hornets ultimately lose, the fans cheer them anyway. It’s almost as if they’re just glad to have something — anything — to cheer about.

“I feel like I have a connection to both cities,” Chris Paul says after the game, sitting in his locker. “This is the initial team that drafted me, and we have a unique opportunity in that night in and night out we get to play for New Orleans and Oklahoma City.”

“I’m a guy from Louisiana,” PJ Brown notes when asked about the Oklahoma City/New Orleans conundrum, “and I get that question in Oklahoma City and I get it here. I really think it’s unfair to the fans there that have supported us big-time this year. The fans here, it’s unfair to them for us to leave just because of their surroundings. There’s so many important issues that are bigger than this basketball team that need to be addressed. If it’s meant to be, for the team to be here or there, it’s just going to work out that way. And me and my teammates, we don’t have a say-so anyway in what’s going to happen. I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision.”

“The support here in New Orleans is pretty good too,” Hornets guard Kirk Snyder says, “so I don’t know. It’s all kind of subjective. Whatever they decide to do is going to be popular somewhere and unpopular somewhere.”