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By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
When University of New Orleans women’s basketball coach Amy Champion evacuated the city to her parents’ home in Mississippi five years ago with four of her players in tow, she didn’t know it would be three months before she set foot back on campus, six months before she was living in the city again or three years before things got back to something resembling routine.
Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees crippled New Orleans in late August 2005, Champion and others in college athletics are getting accustomed to a new normal – a normal that includes elaborate emergency evacuation plans, an intimate knowledge of federal emergency management protocol, laptop computers instead of desktops, and standing agreements with schools outside the Gulf Coast for office and residential space.
Amy Champion New Orleans
For Champion, everyday life has changed dramatically. The women’s basketball coach now sits in the athletics director’s chair and is responsible for guiding the Privateers through reclassification from Division I to Division III athletics. She believes without the storm, the school had a good shot at remaining in Division I. But she also believes Division III will eventually be a good fit for the public institution, once an adjustment period has passed.
The storm and subsequent flooding affected every part of the university, and enrollment has yet to recover. Because the school funds athletics with student fees, any dip in enrollment has an impact on the department’s finances. Fundraising sources dried up. The economy worsened. The oil spill hasn’t helped, either.
Ever the optimist, though, Champion calls the storm “the starting point to our future.”
But to get to that future, New Orleans, its neighbor Tulane University and many other college athletics programs in the Gulf region have had much to overcome. Recruiting, next to impossible in the months after the storm, remains difficult. Champion said parents of prospects often make their excuses and get off the phone as soon as they hear she’s from the University of New Orleans.
“That storm has lingered in this program for years,” she said. “There are still some people out there who think we are under water.”
Recruiting student-athletes to come back hasn’t been the only struggle. Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters said that although life has more or less returned to normal in the Big Easy, people outside the area are still apprehensive about another storm hitting the region.
Waters, a Gulf South native, said the fear is an odd one. After all, you can get out of the way of a hurricane. You can’t do the same with earthquakes or tornadoes in other areas.
The Sun Belt Conference office, located on Poydras Street near the French Quarter, was spared the flooding much of the rest of the city endured. But the devastation in the area was difficult to overlook. Many on the conference staff lost everything they had. Today, only one person besides Waters who was with the league in August 2005 remains on staff. Most of the new staff members have some connection to the city.
“I remember the first job opening I had (after the storm),” he said. “I called a friend in Kentucky and (asked for help). She said, ‘Wright, you have a better chance of finding Osama bin Laden than recruiting to New Orleans.’
“We started looking for people who understand what’s going on in New Orleans, who have a connection with something here, as opposed to the traditional athletics search approach.”
In addition to the recruiting and personnel matters, Tulane and New Orleans faced significant facility issues in the wake of the storm. When Tulane Athletics Director Rick Dickson first returned to campus in December 2005, the athletics building was “under remediation,” with huge air machines and ducts blowing to prevent mold. Lakefront Arena on the New Orleans’ campus also flooded and wasn’t usable again until fall 2008. Champion and her staff shared a POD storage unit as an office for two years and practiced and competed in an outdated recreational gym on campus.
Lakefront Arena (Photo by Infrogmation)
Of course, being home was somewhat more comforting than sharing facilities with the New Orleans’ men’s team and all the teams at Texas-Tyler, as they had for the fall semester of 2005. During that time, Champion said she felt isolated with her staff and student-athletes (eight of 14 remained on the roster after the storm), playing only three “home” games in Tyler in their 28-game schedule.
“We wanted to make sure the kids were OK, and that they were healthy and were having a good experience despite not being on their own campus,” she said. “We went from wearing the coach hat to wearing the mom hat and the babysitter hat, the manager hat, the academic counselor hat. It became quite a task.
“Looking back on it, I can’t believe we did it. It’s hard for me to think about. You do what you have to do to make it work. We kept it alive and did what we had to do.”
The kids who went through that year and remained loyal to the program hold a special place in Champion’s heart. The final student-athlete, a freshman the year Katrina struck, will graduate in December. The relationship they share – that she shares with the entire roster – is unmatched.
For Tulane’s Dickson, the decisions about how to continue were difficult. In the months after the storm, he made sure that all the student-athletes were enrolled somewhere so they could compete when their seasons began. He considers the decision to put each student-athlete through psychological evaluations the best “gut instinct” he had during the aftermath.
“Once the reality set in and you get through the excitement from the national media attention, the reality of not being in your own bed, your own locker room or your own classroom set in,” Dickson said. “We had to continuously monitor everybody. Everybody had a story. It affected everybody differently.
“I was so busy that four and a half months – it’s still a blur. I just felt the weight of wanting to make sure everybody was OK.”
By January, the school decided to reduce or suspend half its athletics program. Dickson had to travel to all four campuses that housed his student-athletes and break the news. Then he spent much of that spring trying to accommodate student-athletes who wanted to transfer or to ensure those who remained that the school would continue its commitment to them. In the end, Tulane lost only 19 student-athletes.
In hindsight, Dickson said he might have sent the student-athletes home after the storm instead of sending them to different schools, especially with all of the uncertainty. But he credits their perseverance with keeping the program alive.
“After what the university had to deal with, if they had just turned out the lights and said we’ll revisit athletics when we get back on our feet as a university, I don’t know what would have happened,” he said.”If these kids hadn’t done what they did, there is no doubt in my mind we’d just now be talking about reinstating athletics. Athletics persevered because of how those young people persevered.”
That spirit kept Dickson at Tulane when he had an opportunity to leave. He found he couldn’t walk away. He had to be the one to rebuild.
All the schools, and the Sun Belt Conference itself, now have hurricane evacuation plans, revisited before each school year begins. The plans address communication, evacuation and assessments of the city. They include temporary office locations, elephantine flash drives, phone trees and individual assignments such as retrieving files and ensuring telephone service.
One of the athletic fields at Tulane University is shown covered in floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, Pool)
“Preparedness is something we didn’t have at that time,” Champion said. “We do now. We learned through this event that we were not prepared, and we learned a lot of tough lessons along the way.”
The storm knocked the university – and its athletics department – for a loop, but Champion remains hopeful.
“I want to be competitive again, to be able to provide these student-athletes with a great athletics opportunity,” she said. “This is a great institution. It’s a great department. We will survive this, just like we did Katrina.
“In adverse times, character is revealed. We are doing our best to get this department healthy and strong and moving in the right direction.”
Dickson said outlining core values and having them top-of-mind during any kind of disaster was – and is – a priority at Tulane.
“Whatever decisions you make, you have to stay in concert with what your values are,” he said. “It’s hard enough under any circumstances to head off on a journey that’s unchartered without having some well-grounded ideas as to what you are trying to achieve.”
For Dickson, what they were trying to achieve was simple. They wanted to survive. And they wanted to show the community, the city of New Orleans, what was possible.
“We knew the scoreboards wouldn’t be the priority,” he said. “It was about showing a campus and a community that when you’re faced with adversity, you get on your feet, and you turn and help others do the same. Our kids will forever be champions for doing that.”