Louisiana teams continue post-Katrina recovery
NEW ORLEANS -- As the evacuation of Hurricane Katrina storm victims wound down, dozens of youngsters frolicked on the soggy artificial turf where the New Orleans Saints had played a preseason game just days before.
Strips of sunlight glared down from huge rips in the Superdome roof, water stood in corridors, mounds of trash were everywhere. The children hurled themselves across the goal lines to imaginary cheers, did touchdown dances and yelled with delight in what turned out to be the final games of the year in the Dome or the city.
The killer storm that battered the giant stadium Aug. 29 also pounded athletic programs, facilities and athletes, scattering teams across the country and wiping out programs.
College recruiters struggled to keep track of athletes who had fled the area. Everyone from the New Orleans Hornets to organizers of high school championships scrambled to hold seasons together.
"We had our teams everywhere," said University of New Orleans athletic director Jim Miller. "The baseball team went to New Mexico State, men's and women's basketball went to the University of Texas at Tyler, the swim team was at Emory, track and field went to LSU, men's golf to LSU-Shreveport, the women to Nicholls State. And we canceled the volleyball season."
Still, Miller feels lucky. Every sport except men's and women's tennis will return to campus this spring. The basketball arena, like the Superdome, received major damage, but the basketball teams will return in January and play in the old gym, Miller said.
At Tulane, the damage was much worse.
The university cut half its athletic programs: men's track and cross country, women's swimming and soccer, men and women's golf, and men's and women's tennis. The cuts affected about 100 athletes.
The university put the cost of recovering from the storm so far at $200 million and said it expects a drop in enrollment. Before Katrina, Tulane had 13,214 students: 7,976 undergraduate and 5,238 in graduate schools. Post-Katrina, the university expects between 8,500 and 9,000 students to register for the semester that begins Jan. 17.
After being evacuated to Jackson, Miss., the Tulane football team (2-8) spent the season traveling, playing 11 games in 11 different stadiums. After a few days in Jackson, the team moved to Dallas and eventually to Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La., for the rest of the season.
"Though our wins and losses are not where we wanted them to be, to have 100 people see this season through is a great testament to their character," said Tulane coach Chris Scelfo.
At McNeese University in Lake Charles, La., the football team played only the last two games of the season at home after a double hit from Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
"We made one of the games Homecoming," said sports information director Louis Bonnette.
Katrina forced LSU to postpone its opener with North Texas until Oct. 29, and its home game against Arizona State the following week was moved to Tempe.
Then, Hurricane Rita led officials to push back the Tennessee game to Monday night, leaving LSU precious little time to prepare for Mississippi State five days later.
Visiting teams for both LSU and Southern University found their hotel reservations voided by the storm, leaving them scrambling for rooms as far away at Texas.
For most of the season the school's stadium was used to house refugees.
Thirty-one high schools lost their football seasons due to Katrina and Rita, said Tommy Henry, commissioner of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association. As many as 10 or more may not even have athletic programs by next fall, and that number could increase given that there are approximately 16 New Orleans area schools facing uncertain athletic futures.
"We also had schools that only played a game or two," Henry said. "Then there were entire schools that were lost. But we limped through it. Now we just have to go on from here, but it won't be easy."
The high school championship games, which average 50,000 people for the five games spread over two days, had to be played in Shreveport, La., because of the damage to the Superdome.
That same damage sent the Saints to San Antonio for the season. They played their home games at the Alamodome, at LSU, and were the "home" team when they traveled to New York to play the Giants.
"I look up at the scoreboard and there are signs, 'Let's Go Giants'," said Saints coach Jim Haslett. "The referees, when they flipped the coin, they asked us if we wanted heads or tails. They had no idea who the home team was and who was away. The crowd noise we had to deal with, we never had to do a silent count at home."
To make things worse, the Saints disgruntled owner, Tom Benson, did little to reassure his long-suffering Louisiana fans that he would return to the state.
A study has put the price tag on repairing the Superdome, which housed refugees for a week after the hurricane, at $139.1 million. Officials hope to have it repaired by Nov. 2006.
The building's losses, in addition to all the Tulane and Saints home games, include the New Orleans Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the Bayou Classic.
The New Orleans Hornets of the NBA moved to Oklahoma City following the hurricane and quickly changed their name to the New Orleans-Oklahoma City Hornets.
The team scheduled six games at LSU, but has made no commitment to return to the New Orleans Arena, even though the building's management company said it would be ready for them in the spring. The Hornets have a one-year option to return to Oklahoma next season that must be exercised before July. Ticket sales have been brisk in their temporary home and with New Orleans population less than half of what it was before the storm, returning may be a problem.
The Hornets hope to play one to three games in New Orleans in March, which could give them an idea of how a return would go.
"We need to make sure everything is ready so we can sell tickets and promote it," owner George Shinn said. "We don't want to embarrass the city and have only 1,500 people show up."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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