All-Star Brings Much-Needed Hope to New Orleans

Two and a Half Years After Hurricane Katrina

By Adam Hirshfield,

Though she was in Washington, D.C., when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, area native Temeka Johnson says more than 50 relatives were forced to evacuate.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 13, 2007 -- The contrast was stark as the 737 descended through the bright, white clouds and into the dark, rain-soaked skies above Southeastern Louisiana. As we flew over Lake Pontchartrain and were again above ground, the low-lying elevation you hear so much about became very apparent. With the rain pelting the blacktop streets, it was hard to tell the avenues from the canals. Remind you of something?

We landed comfortably despite the increasingly overpowering rainfall, but the mood had been set. Welcome to New Orleans, home of… well, whatever's left after Hurricane Katrina.

In late August of 2005, the entire country watched as the wind and rain of one of America's deadliest hurricanes in recent memory blasted this historic city. The flood waters eventually receded, but the damage had been done. Nearly 2,000 people lost their lives. Damages have been estimated at $81.2 billion. These numbers hit hard, but it's nothing compared to being here.

As we drove into the city from the airport, many of the areas seemed relatively unaffected two and a half years after the fact. But every mile or so, as thunder clapped in the background, you'd look up at an old brick building on the side of a main city street to see that its roof had been blown off. (In fact, earlier on Tuesday, the strong winds had blown hundreds of bricks off the roof an old building across the street from our hotel, damaging two cars that sat harmlessly parallel parked on the side of the road.)

And that destruction, for better or worse, is now part of the New Orleans story, says Los Angeles Sparks guard Temeka Johnson, a native of nearby Kenner, La., and an alumnae of LSU in neighboring Baton Rouge.

"We've had plenty of devastation," says the 5-3 point guard, "but this city still has high hopes. It's been a tough ride, but for the most part everybody's gotten together and tried to make the best of the situation. I'm proud to say that I'm from here."

Despite the Mardi Gras-, voodoo-, jazz-infused reputation of "the Big Easy," Johnson says Kenner was a good place to be raised.

"And it's not really about where you grow up. You usually only get a sense of what your surroundings are like for you, so it's not really good or bad. Everyone has their own story.

"But more important is what your family's like. And my story is pretty good. So for me, it really was a good place to grow up. I had family that loved me and cared for me and was there for me through everything."

Though Johnson was not in New Orleans at the time of Katrina -- she was finishing up her 2005 Rookie of the Year season with the Washington Mystics -- her family was certainly affected.

"More than 50 members of my family had to evacuate the area," she says. And being so isolated from family at a time like that was tough.

"It was devastating. With the season ending in Washington, I was actually getting ready to fly back home." But at the time, there was nothing she could do.

"I was in Washington, D.C., sitting in my living room watching it unfold on TV… saying 'Wow, that's my city.' Phone lines were down. My cell phone was even down because I had a 504 area code."

But Johnson's story ended more happily than most. "I was finally able to get in touch with my brother over my phone's walkie-talkie, and he told me that everyone had gotten out OK."

"It was a tough time," says Johnson with a touch of obviousness, "but I was just happy to find out that my family was OK. The other stuff didn't really matter. You can replace physical things and belongings. You can't replace memories. But my family was OK. And that was the most important thing."

Still, much of Johnson's family has yet to return to the Crescent City. They're scattered from Dallas to Atlanta, where she says her uncle is happy to stay now that he'll be able to see her play locally against the expansion Atlanta Dream.

But the damage to the city is still far beyond what an outsider could have imagined.

"You couldn't fathom it," Johnson says with a shake of her head. "I went to school in Baton Rouge and came there shortly after the hurricane had passed. And even there, we couldn't fathom what it was like for people stuck here, flooded into their houses. It was a really tough time, but it's great that people can still smile."

And that resilience is what makes this NBA All-Star Week such a special event, both for the city and for the league.

"It brings hope," says Johnson. "To me, when I think about this week in New Orleans, I don't think about all of the parties and the extra-curricular activities. I think about the hope that it brings to the city of New Orleans and its people. The people here want to see it grow and rebuild. And that's the most important thing to me, too."

"There's always a desire to give back," she says. "Even though I'm an 'outside girl' from Kenner, the people of New Orleans have always supported me throughout my career, so it's important to me to give back in whatever way I can."

Johnson was also willing to get up on her political soapbox to decry the lack of assistance the government has provided.

"America is supposed to be the most powerful country in the world. We're always willing to go in and help other people. But here we have a city in the U.S. with a lot of history, and we're still taking our time to fix it back up. That's very painful to see."

But that is the beauty of the NBA bringing its players, fans and resources to this city in full force. With youth clinics, reading rallies and an entire day of service planned for Friday, positive steps are being taken.

"The people here need to see that there are still people out there who care about New Orleans and want to help the city to rebuild," says Johnson. "There are still people who care, and that's part of why having the All-Star event here is so meaningful to this city."

Today the sun in shining and the city is bustling and full of hope for whatever rebuilding can be done, both this week and into the future.

But NBA All-Star is not just about rebuilding.

"I also hope this event brings some excitement to the city," she says with a twinkle in her eye. "The people here need a reason to celebrate and have some fun."

If last week's Mardi Gras is any indication, celebrating won't be much of a problem.

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