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As Gibson's world crumbles, he vows to rebuild it

9/15/2005 - Kelly Gibson

Kelly Gibson spent this week in Milwaukee, watching television like the rest of the world, crying while his city was destroyed, seeing the floods and then the fires, e-mailing his thoughts, and working the phones, reaching out, crying out, for friends, for family, for the federal government, to do something about this Biblical storm that tore a hole in the heart of America.

"It's absolutely the most gut-wrenching thing you can imagine," Gibson said Friday from his hotel room. "It's like watching somebody die in your hands."

Gibson was born and raised in the New Orleans suburb of Algiers, and now he lives -- or lived -- in a condo near the Warehouse District, where the plume of black smoke rose from the water all day Friday. He plays the Nationwide Tour and was in Wisconsin on Monday for a charity outing hosted by Skip Kendall. His wife, Elizabeth, was in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bore in on the Gulf Coast. It took her nine hours to travel the first 90 miles, and eventually she made it to Dallas, and a plane that took her to Milwaukee. Kelly didn't know she was safe until he saw a text message on his cell phone.

Gibson has feelings much like the rest of the country, traces of anger mixed with tears, all of us asking if this is the start of Armageddon, fearing that we have not yet seen the worst of this hell that has descended on our earth, exposing our weaknesses, dividing us even more. Like all of us, he wants to know why there was a delayed reaction, why there hasn't been more done. But to him, it hits closer to home.

"You feel grief, anger, betrayed, bitter, sad," he said. "There's enough finger-pointing going on. I've done enough of it, too. Then you look at the positives and say maybe help figure this out, maybe come back stronger, maybe make the world realize everything flows through the Mississippi. You can't live without us."

Gibson has a brother, Kevin, who checked in Kenner on Monday and hasn't been heard from since. He has another brother, Keith, who is a doctor in Baton Rouge, dealing with the evacuees -- most of them with broken bones, at a hospital that is bursting at the seams. His sister Kathy, is safe. Another brother, Kerry, made it to Lake Charles and was without money or a phone. "He's going to be fine," said Gibson. "He's an insurance assessor."

The e-mails flooded his mailbox. From Tom Lehman, from Greg Kraft, from Ed Fiori, from John Cook and his wife, Jan. Stan Utley and Willie Wood offered up their houses. There were over 200. He was trying to organize a food drive. He was thinking of what this would mean to all his buddies who would have to start over, who had lost their businesses, their jobs, all they worked for, all their lives. The Gulf States Section of the PGA estimates that 350 pros have been affected. Both of his coaches, Rob Noel and James Leitz, are out of work. Leitz, the No. 1 instructor in Louisiana, has three children in college. His course, Pinewood CC, is under water. "It broke my heart for me to hear him say he'd be driving a bulldozer for the next five years," Gibson said.

The golf course Gibson helped design with Pete Dye, a $27 million project called the TPC of New Orleans, is outside the basin and above sea level, but the PGA Tour says it's "unlikely" that the Zurich Classic will be played there in 2005. Not that that's a high priority now.

Grant Waite called Friday night. They've played together since the '80s. "I told him to walk out of the house and walk away," Gibson said. "That's how I feel. You're just so desperate." He told his wife that it could come down to him taking a year off to help rebuild the city. He's a tour pro trying to hang on, but he's willing to make the sacrifice. His apartment building, he's learned, has sustained the storm. At least he has something to go back to.

New Orleans is his city. He won an auction bid to coach the Saints in a scrimmage. He works out at the same gym with the mayor. He plays golf with Archie Manning. He's been around for 41 years and like him, most of his friends have never left. He is the home pro, traveling the world and coming to the realization that there's no place he'd rather live.

Up in Shreveport, the foundations of Hal Sutton and David Toms are kicking in. Sutton's buying school books for the displaced students who will be going to school in his city. Toms' funds are buying clothes and extra nights in hotels for those with no money. The PGA Tour has organized a golf organization relief fund and has pledged $5 million. Golf is rallying around the disaster, as it did with the tsunami, as it did the victims of 9/11.

"As many of you have realized, our life in New Orleans has forever been changed," is how Gibson started an e-mail that he sent out on Thursday. He is plotting how to get home, how to be involved in the clean-up and restoration -- and like all of those in his city, how to start all over.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.