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You in?" It's
the query posed to anyone who would be in the game, an exhortation rich with
resolve and checked guts. It's essentially what New Orleanians with a
rebuilder's heart have been asking one another for most of the two years since
the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history sent 40 billion gallons of water
into their city, rinse-cycled homes and lives, and withdrew to lay bare its
It's a world in which baseball diamonds are hard to come by, but the spray-painted hieroglyphics of search-and-rescue teams still adorn the facades of houses, like notations on baseball scorecards, indicating the number of dead bodies found inside.
It's a world in which insurance companies suddenly seem to underwrite every sporting event in town--and homeowners fume, believing that Allstate (sponsor of the Sugar Bowl, this season's BCS championship game, and holder of a Patron Saint stake in the local NFL franchise) and State Farm (with the Bayou Classic and the Louisiana high school football championships) are trying to deflect attention from the meager settlements and trebled premiums that keep even those who want to rebuild from coming home to do so.
It's a world in which the NCAA is exposed as actually having a heart, for the Inspector Javerts of Indianapolis have suspended some of their rules--on extra benefits for athletes and on standards to qualify for Division I status--at Tulane and the University of New Orleans.
It's a world in which the Saints sell every season ticket and corporate suite, as citizens and businesses still in town try to make sure that Katrina won't become a pretext for the team's long-feared departure.
It's a world in which Alfred Lawless High, once the pride of the Lower Ninth Ward, stands like Pompeii Tech, neither razed nor rebuilt, just suspended in time by the lava flow of the floodwater. What became of the boy who wore helmet number 34, which as of a month ago still sat in locker 827? And that girls' basketball jersey moldering outside the gym--is its owner piecing her life back together in Houston or Baton Rouge? On the blackboard of an English classroom, still: AUGUST 29, 2005, DO NOW: SIGN IN. WRITE A PARAGRAPH WITH THE FOLLOWING WORDS: SAINTS, PRESEASON, RUNNING BACK.
Do now: Sign in, indeed. You in? The federal government has been "in," all right--indifferent and intransigent, almost criminally so. Much of the aid due the city is only just beginning to flow, while the engineering work and coastal management necessary to make New Orleans secure remain years and billions from completion. In the meantime local government has been "in" too--incompetent and incorrigible by turns; the status of Lawless High is only one of many examples. Even the country at large seems to suffer from Katrina fatigue, moving smartly on while clinging to caricatured notions of what life in the city is like--"Everything," says UNO athletic director Jim Miller, "from 'Gosh, shouldn't you be back to normal?' to 'You're still underwater, aren't you?' "
All of which leaves the fate of New Orleans to New Orleanians. And so they transform themselves from huddled masses to huddle-uppers, rebuilding and repopulating their city one home, one block, one neighborhood at a time.
The "super" in Superdome is no accidental prefix. In good times the 32-year-old stadium, one of the largest domed structures in the world, has hosted six Super Bowls, four Final Fours, Muhammad Ali and the Pope. In bad, it has served as the city's refuge of last resort, shelter from the storm for the indigent and infirm. As Katrina bore down on the Dome, and nursing homes dropped off patients with notes pinned to their clothing, the spectrum of humanity housed there ranged from gangbangers to tourists to those who would parade around the concourses singing This Little Light of Mine.
Soon after Katrina made landfall early on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, winds of 127-mph blew two smoke-relief vents off the Superdome roof. Metal decking began to flap against steel trusses above the heads of terrified evacuees huddled in the lower bowl of seats. Soon a 60-foot gash had opened, and debris began to shower the field below: steel bolts, light fixtures, ceiling tiles, even a lightning rod, each an implement of death if it were to hit someone after a fall of 270 feet.