Jan. 2, 2007
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The day before the Sugar Bowl, it seemed like ol' times in the heart of the French Quarter.
Street dancers performed for a large gathering in Jackson Square, getting big cheers when they pulled a young LSU fan into their act. Aspiring artists stood ready to churn out a caricature for anyone passing by. Ominous-looking psychics hovered over candles and Ouija boards, prepared to deliver some eery premonition. And, of course, the bartenders doled out plenty of Abitas (that's a local beer), Hurricanes and Bloody Marys.
With thousands of people milling about the narrow streets, celebrating the return of the Sugar Bowl to its native city, the Big Easy is back in business, right?
Not so fast.
Just a few miles away from the party, there was another set of rituals Wednesday that have become all too familiar for those who live in this still-devastated city. Construction workers hammered away at flooded-out homes. People tossed out the water-logged remnants of their shattered lives for garbage trucks to haul away. Thousands prepared to spend another night living in trailers, wondering when they might actually have a place to call home that doesn't have wheels.
"If you live in Idaho or Montana or Wyoming," Curtis Click said, "you just can't understand the extent of the damage."
Click and his family are fully aware that New Orleans is still struggling to get back on its feet, a striking contrast to the revelry on Bourbon Street. Sixteen months after Hurricane Katrina sent 2 feet of water pouring into the Lake Terrace neighborhood, their home remains nothing more than a shell - wood framing where walls should be, wires and ductwork dangling from the exposed ceiling. One of those omnipresent FEMA trailers is camped out on the front lawn, a temporary home with an increasingly permanent feel; they've been using it since the first of July, after returning from the sanctuary of San Antonio.
Click and his 20-year-old son will be in that trailer Wednesday night, watching No. 4 LSU take on 11th-ranked Notre Dame in what figures to be the most poignant of Sugar Bowls. Last year, the game shifted to Atlanta because the Superdome was in no shape to host a football game. This year, it's back home, another cornerstone in the tedious rebuilding of an irreplaceable American city.
"I've got a front-row seat," Click said with a giddy fist pump, unconcerned that he'll have to watch the game on a tiny television in a cramped seat with barely enough room to turn around.
Click and his wife, Nancy, are thrilled to have the Sugar Bowl back where it belongs - if for no other reason than to let people know there's so much work left to be done.
"People think we're finished, but it's going to take years to rebuild," she said. "If more people come to town, maybe it will get the word out that we're still struggling big time."
Amid all the political infighting, the government inefficiency, the miles of red tape that have slowed parts of the recovery to a glacier-like pace, a silly sport - football - has helped lift the spirits of New Orleans in particular and Louisiana as a whole, giving its beaten-down populace a sense that everything will turn out OK.
After going 3-13 last season, the Saints won their division and earned a bye into the second round of the NFL playoffs. LSU (10-2) closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak to claim a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.
That the Tigers were invited to the Sugar Bowl after a wild final weekend only adds to the sense that some sort of destiny is at work.
"As we've been going around the city, all the people have been coming up and telling us their Katrina stories," LSU coach Les Miles said. "There could be no other bowl game for this year's LSU team than the Sugar Bowl.
Of course, the city is far from perfect. Heading north or east from the French Quarter, it doesn't take long to come face-to-face with Katrina's devastating impact. The Clicks actually got off a bit lucky - their home could be repaired, as opposed to plenty all around them that were simply leveled. But they scuttled most of their household furnishings, not to mention such heart-wrenching items as videos of Nancy as a young girl.
"That's all gone," she said. "I lost my childhood."
Nancy pulls out a picture album that she's compiled, documenting their inviting, two-story home before the storm and what was left after the water receded.
"My wedding ring is somewhere in that pile," she said, pointing to a picture that shows a pile of garbage stacked on the front lawn, about all that was left from the bottom floor. "There's a $5,000 sofa right there."
The players have certainly grasped that they're part of something bigger than just a football game. A few days ago, Notre Dame (10-2) sent its players to help remove debris from a flooded-out school.
"That was pretty eye-opening," quarterback Brady Quinn said. "You hear about Hurricane Katrina, but you don't understand what it's truly like until you see it. The walls were caved in. We saw a chalkboard with the date 'August 25, 2005' written on it. You could tell that no one had been in there since then."
One of his teammates, defensive tackle Derek Landri, was taken aback at the slowness of the recovery. Maybe that's only natural. The rest of the country seems to have moved on, burned out by all the Katrina coverage or simply distracted by other news.
"We still saw homes with their doors wide open," Landri said. "We still saw water lines in the homes. A year and a half later, that's kind of surprising."
Even in the French Quarter and other areas that weren't hit as hard, this isn't the same city. While tens of thousands gathered on the banks of the Mississippi River to ring in the new year and the city is now bustling with LSU and Notre Dame fans, there are times when the streets are barren of tourists. Those who do visit find businesses with reduced hours and restaurants that shut down a couple of days each week, simply because there aren't enough workers.
But the cruise ships have returned, some major conventions are booked and Mardi Gras is right around the corner. Next football season, New Orleans will get a nice one-two punch by hosting the Sugar Bowl and the BCS championship game a week apart.
"I hate to say it, but we need the tourists," said Nancy Click, fighting off the pre-Katrina inclination of those who call this place home. "We really need them to come back. I hope they will."