By Greg Johnson
Over the next few days, college basketball fans will enjoy the Men’s Final Four games in the Superdome and take in the culture that makes New Orleans a unique destination.
The city is used to hosting major sports spectacles, but this is the first time college basketball’s marquee event has returned in nine years. It’s also the first time New Orleans has hosted the Final Four since Hurricane Katrina washed waves as high as 15 feet over about 80 percent of the city in August 2005.
There are so many stories involving people and schools that helped out the institutions in New Orleans during the disaster. One involved New Mexico State baseball coach Rocky Ward and then-New Orleans baseball coach Tom Walter, now at Wake Forest.
When it became clear that New Orleans could not re-open right away after Katrina, Walter called several schools to see if his players could enroll and have a place to practice. Because of varying reasons, they couldn’t find a place to go.
That was until he called Ward at New Mexico State. The two men had a history being Sun Belt Conference foes, and it wasn’t all good. The first year they competed against each other, there was a dispute about a New Mexico State player relaying signs from second base to hitters.
“We didn’t hate each other, but we didn’t like each other much after that first meeting,” Ward said. “When he called me after Katrina, he stared the conversation by saying, ‘This is Tom Walter, and I got to be honest, you aren’t the first guy I’ve called, but I need help.’ I told him I could help.”
Just over 48 hours later, Walter had his team on a plane headed to El Paso, Texas, where Ward arranged for a bus to pick them up for the drive to Las Cruces, N.M.
Walter and his club spent the fall semester going to class and practicing for the season.
Once the flood waters receded, New Orleans players were able to return to their campus for the spring semester and play games on their own field.
The following year, New Mexico State visited New Orleans and took part in a Habitat for Humanity build before playing the Privateers.
“Our players had already felt like they had done a lot by opening up their homes and letting them have a place to practice in a time of need,” Ward said. “But going down there and seeing what happened to that city firsthand had a big impact on my players.”
Ward said he still keeps in contact with many of his former players through Facebook.
“They still occasionally make comments about that experience and how important it was to be able to help,” Ward said. “It was a wonderful learning experience for them. Most of my colleagues know that the most important thing we do isn’t to teach a guy how to hit or pitch. The most important thing is to get a kid to be a good citizen, a good student and a good person. They leave us with a college degree and become people who add to society. Most of us as coaches treasure that part of our job.”
More than 1,400 people lost their lives, and the city sustained millions of dollars in property damage. For natives of New Orleans, Katrina turned into the storm they had always feared could happen.
Seven years later, the recovery is ongoing. This weekend, tens of thousands of basketball fans will give the city’s economy a boost. For a few Division I basketball players who experienced Katrina firsthand, it will be a welcome reality.
“I’m sure it will be great for the city,” said Scott Saunders, a New Orleans native who recently completed his senior season at Belmont. He and his family evacuated from their home a couple of days before Katrina hit in 2005. They stayed with family and friends in the Nashville area and thought they would be able to go home after Katrina blew through. They never returned.
“The storm hit the start of my junior year in high school,” Saunders said. “When you are from New Orleans, evacuating from a hurricane is something you do regularly anyway. Everyone at my high school kind of treated it like, ‘Hey, we’re getting a long weekend.’ Only this time we never came back.”
After three weeks, Saunders’ parents knew they couldn’t return to their home and that Scott and his brother would have to enroll in school in the Nashville area. Saunders decided to go to Battleground Academy in Franklin, Tenn.
Most of his high school friends ended up going to high school in Houston and Dallas. Some of them returned when his former high school (Jesuit) re-opened for the spring semester. But Saunders’ home was too damaged for him to return.
He adapted well and eventually earned a scholarship to play basketball at Rice. After his freshman year, the 6-10 center decided to transfer to Belmont in Nashville.
“It was just a better fit for me,” said Saunders, who is scheduled to graduate with degrees in finance and marketing this May. “It worked out well for me. We had a lot of success the last couple of years. Had the hurricane not happened, I would not have ended up at Belmont.”
Saunders said he makes it back to New Orleans once or twice a year to visit family and friends. About a year ago, he and a childhood friend drove to his former home, which his parents had renovated and sold.
“We used to have a basketball court in the backyard, and he wanted to knock on the door and ask the people living there now if we could go in the back and shoot a few,” Saunders said. “But we eventually decided not to ask.”
Those types of experiences still make the aftermath of Katrina surreal in a way.
“It’s a strange feeling going back,” Saunders said. “Sometimes it feels like you never left, and other times I feel the distance more between Nashville and New Orleans. You start to realize how long it has been since I’ve lived down there. But it is always fun to see some faces I hadn’t seen in a while.”
Charles Carmouche, who was a senior this year at Memphis, was a freshman at St. Augustine High School when the Katrina evacuation occurred. Like Saunders, he had done this drill before and didn’t think it would develop into a catastrophic situation.
“We started out for Lafayette, Louisiana,” said Carmouche, who missed most of this season with knee injuries. “Normally, it takes about two hours to get there. This time it took 13.”
Things were so backed up on the highway that the police let cars head away from the Gulf Coast on the wrong side of the highway.
“You could sense that things were bad, but I never thought I would spend my sophomore year of high school in another state,” Carmouche said. “I really didn’t pack a lot of clothes when we evacuated.”
The roof was blown off his house and nothing inside was salvageable after that.
Carmouche and his family decided to settle in Houston, where he spent the entire school year. They eventually moved back to New Orleans before his junior year, and he graduated from McMain High School.
Tulane and the University of New Orleans recruited Carmouche. He chose the Privateers because he knew they would be losing a big senior class. After two stellar seasons, Carmouche transferred to Memphis because New Orleans had announced it was going to reclassify from Division I to Division III, which does not offer athletics aid.
But he still considers New Orleans his home.
“When I first got back after the storm, I didn’t want to leave Houston because things were going well for me basketball-wise,” Carmouche said. “I adapted to Houston well, but when I got back to New Orleans, I fell in love with the city again.
“The city is better off since 2005,” Carmouche added. “It’s not 100 percent back, but I would say it is about 80 percent of what it was. It has grown, and it’s almost back in terms of buildings and restaurants. Hosting the Final Four will bring in a lot of money and let people see that it is an improved area.”