TCS Daily

Under the Lights

By Ilya Shapiro - October 24, 2006 12:00 AM

CHALMETTE, Louisiana -- "That Popeye's was the first business to reopen here after The Storm," explains my friend, who moved to New Orleans in the literal wake of Hurricane Katrina. He had traded a cushy gig at the Department of Justice for some FEMA adventures, and we are at the tail end of his "disaster tour."

So I look and see the familiar red and yellow logo of the chicken joint, perched above a semi-dilapidated roof and a parking lot strewn with assorted detritus. We drive on some, past abandoned trailers and toppled service station overhangs, gutted ranch houses and uprooted street signs, all remnants of The Storm's lingering devastation. It was like a twister had hit, but everywhere.

If New Orleans was Katrina's eye, this unincorporated community to the east that serves as the seat of St. Bernard Parish was her pupil. Within hours of landfall, 99% of Chalmette was under water (over 20 feet at times). The town remained submerged for over two weeks, and then suffered an oil spill from a tank that lost its structural integrity after the water receded.

In this, my first post-Storm trip back to the Gulf Coast, we came to mark another milepost on the road to recovery: the first nighttime football game since the Chalmette High Owls were forced to evacuate along with the rest of the townfolk.

The stadium lights rise in the distance before we even see the school or any sign of spectators. Ah, those comforting Friday night lights.

I hadn't been to a high school football game since going out to Odessa, Texas, to cover the premiere of the Friday Night Lights movie two Octobers ago. The American simplicity of a hard-luck town living through its teenaged gladiators had bit me then, and my enthusiasm easily persuaded my buddy to tag along in lieu of some party thrown by out-of-state "recovery consultants" and other government types.

On entering the stadium, walking around the muddy ditch and between haphazardly parked F-150s and Suburbans, I am all the more drawn to the defiant light stanchions. Their kliegs light up the fresh white paint on the soggy green field, casually overpowering the not-to-distant refinery lights that are Chalmette's only other illumination (and source of employment) when the sun sets.

"We know what tonight is all about," boasts school board president Diana Dysart over the loudspeaker. The band strikes up the old school fight song while the cheerleaders begin their routine.

The boosters sell t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Back Where We Belong," while the sheriff's deputies -- paid overtime to appear in uniform -- kibitz with local government officials. As it happens, the night also celebrates the stadium's 45th anniversary.

"Everything is a big step," crows Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, the corpulent (and, some say, illiterate) parish president, when I asked about the significance of this game. But, Rodriguez continues, St. Bernard's largest remaining problem is that "FEMA has their head up their ass."

Happy that my friend was not in earshot—not that he is oblivious to locals' (not completely undeserved) opinion of his agency—I retreat to the stands and watch the home team pummel the Ben Franklin High Falcons. Three scores off turnovers—two of them interceptions run back directly for touchdowns—are enough to make even the most dedicated Friday Night Lighter's attention wander.

I end up talking to my neighbor, Jennifer Heintz, who directs me to the back of her t-shirt to show that her daughter is co-captain of the majorettes (and whose nephew is on the team). She grew up in St. Bernard but did not attend Chalmette ("though my ex-husband went here," she clarifies, pointing to a man several rows away). Heintz shares the cautious optimism of those in attendance, and smiles sweetly while stating matter-of-factly that "the town is coming back."

We leave before the end of the first quarter, with the score at 28-0 (the game would end 44-0).

Returning to the bruised cypress trees and fallow streetcar tracks of Uptown New Orleans—where most young professionals live, far enough from Bourbon Street—I wonder whether St. Bernard really will recover. Only about 26,000 of its 60-70,000 residents have returned, and much debris remains in the streets (and not the good kind they serve on Mother's po-boys).

Moreover, would it be a good thing for this ever-struggling suburb to be rebuilt as if nothing had happened? Policymakers pose this question (sotto voce) most often with respect to the urban-poor Lower Ninth Ward, but it applies equally to so many other communities, some that form part of New Orleans's cultural richness and others that only contribute to the city's problems.

More on that and related issues in future writings, but at least for this night—here and across the country—everyone managed to set aside their disputes over policy and politics to worship at the great cathedral of America's football religion.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatch from Purple America" described a perfect union.


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