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Hurricane Season
NEAL THOMPSON
July 23, 2007
A teen without much of a home even before the killer storm struck New Orleans, Joe McKnight escaped the devastation to find a second family, greater high school glory and renewed hope of playing college football
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July 23, 2007

Hurricane Season

A teen without much of a home even before the killer storm struck New Orleans, Joe McKnight escaped the devastation to find a second family, greater high school glory and renewed hope of playing college football

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The coaches collect cell numbers and e-mail addresses, and then the players slink off under blue skies that look anything but menacing. Some families, cars already packed, leave town immediately. Some players will never return.

Joe heads to his mother's cousin's house, where he's been living lately and crawls into bed. When he awakens from his nap, the house is empty and quiet. Joe is used to thinking of himself as a lone wolf, proudly self-sufficient. The truth, though, is that he is never entirely alone. People look after him. One of them is Mike Tucker, the owner of a mental-health center whose daughter Amanda was a classmate of Joe's at John Curtis. Mike was a talented athlete himself, raised by a single mom. He's sympathetic to Joe's plight and has helped over the years with food, clothes and a bed. Now, as the storm bears down, Joe calls Mike and asks if he can spend the night at his house in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

The next morning Mayor Nagin issues the first mandatory evacuation order in the city's history. An hour and a half later Mike, his wife, their three children and Joe join the mass exodus, headed northwest for Shreveport. During the 18-hour drive they repeatedly try to reach Joe's mom on her cellphone, with no luck.

By nightfall 80% of New Orleanians have left, spreading across the South to safe havens. But tens of thousands of people stay, some out of defiance and others because they are too poor, sick or helpless to leave. At 10 p.m., reporting from the French Quarter, CNN's John Zarella describes a light drizzle, a gentle breeze and an "eerie feeling."

AUGUST 29, 2005

Katrina makes landfall before dawn on Monday, gouging a path of destruction across southern Louisiana's spongy Mississippi River Delta, then turning east and slamming into Mississippi, where it flattens coastal homes. New Orleans is spared a direct hit, but the storm's western flank tears off roofs and punches in windows in the city. Deafening winds shred century-old homes, trees and landmarks. The root-beer mug above Ted's Frostop is hurled to the ground, and the popular Sid-Mars seafood restaurant in Bucktown is smashed and whisked away.

Brick facades peel off like wallpaper. Cars are tossed like bath toys, and street signs whiz down Bourbon Street and crash into buildings. Light poles snap, power lines become flying spaghetti strands shooting out sparks. Billboards are torn apart. Manholes cough up water that pours through downtown. The wind and rain and noise are incessant, and deep water is soon everywhere: eight feet in Lakeview, 10 in the Lower Ninth Ward, 20 in Chalmette. The levees designed to protect New Orleans are failing, their walls crumbling under the weight of the surge.

Joe and the Tucker family, safe at a hotel hundreds of miles from New Orleans, are glued to the TV screen, whose images might as well be coming from a war-ravaged city in some Third World country. New Orleans is fast becoming a fetid lake. In many neighborhoods only the rooftops are visible. Residents flooded out of their homes begin wading or swimming toward the alleged safety of the Superdome.

In the hurricane's aftermath, displaced New Orleanians learn they won't be able to return home anytime soon. Looting and shooting are rampant. There's no power or potable water in many neighborhoods. Survivors are packed into the sweltering Superdome or the Convention Center, and corpses float facedown all across the city. Officials warn that some districts may be off-limits for months.

For Joe the ruin of his city is heartbreaking. He's sure that many friends and family members have lost their homes--including, possibly, his mom. After 10 days without being able to reach her, they finally talk and he learns that she and other relatives have safely evacuated to a town north of Baton Rouge. But with so much uncertainty about when residents will be able to return to New Orleans, Joe begins planning his next steps, attempting to salvage a football season that is starting without him. Unwilling to wait on John Curtis to reopen, Joe enrolls himself at Shreveport's Evangel Christian Academy, a well-known private school that, like Curtis, is a football powerhouse with a string of state titles. The school's most recent star, John David Booty, is at USC, backing up quarterback Matt Leinart.

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