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Marching through madness

Exploring Katrina's aftermath with Saints players

Posted: Tuesday September 6, 2005 12:35PM; Updated: Tuesday September 6, 2005 1:30PM
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The Saints' Deuce McAllister surveys the damage in New Orleans.
Bill Baptist/SI
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He had a story to tell, like so many tens of thousands of others who were battered by Hurricane Katrina and endured its calamitous aftermath, and the New Orleans native with short dreadlocks and numerous gold teeth did not sugarcoat it for his famous listener. The man's name was Michael Verrett, and after he related his weeklong ordeal to Deuce McAllister while waiting to be evacuated from Louis Armstrong International Airport last Sunday, the Saints' star halfback merely shook his head and whispered, "Wow."

McAllister and I had been escorted into New Orleans by three Salvation Army workers last Sunday, and now we were talking to survivors of what will likely rank as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. While walking through the terminal, McAllister had been recognized by Verrett's adolescent son, Michael Jr., who'd initiated a conversation about the Saints and their upcoming 2005 season, which surely will set a new standard of displacement for the modern major professional sports team.

"Hey Deuce, over here might be the next superstar Saints running back," the elder Verrett said proudly while playfully punching his son. Then, addressing Michael Jr., he added, "See, I'm telling you, look at this man. If you want to be a running back, you've got to eat."

Nourishment had been a constant worry for the previous six days, as father and son were holed up in a crowded shelter at Charles R. Drew Elementary School in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood. There they tried to survive amid flooding, chaotic crime and the absence of power and running water. Verrett told of stretching the school's limited food supply by "making giant pots of beans ... Some of us swam to our houses and got butane tanks and pots and pans and brought 'em back, and we took car batteries and cut the wires to set it up so we could cook." The meals, he said, mostly went to the elderly and the children. "I was hungry many nights," Verrett said, rubbing his son's head, "but as long as I saw this guy here lying down with something in his stomach, my stomach was full."

The people at the shelter kept up with the crisis by jerry-rigging car batteries and hooking up radios. Another woman sitting with Verrett said that "the military people let us break into a Walgreens and get diabetes medicine for my auntie, along with food and water. I ain't never stole nothin' in my life before, but I stole a bus and loaded it up with food, water and medicine and drove around the neighborhood delivering it to people who needed it."