Commentary

Gustav evokes memories of tragedy, triumph

Updated: August 6, 2009, 5:26 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

Watching Hurricane Gustav bear down on the Gulf Coast area with a ferocity reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina nearly three years ago, I have been reeling with the thought that my friends and extended family in New Orleans would face a repeat nightmare. Thankfully, they are all safely outside the city.

As I wondered Sunday night what would happen in the next few days during and after this storm, I remembered my first trip to the area to help in the post-Katrina recovery. I flew to Baton Rouge, La., on Sept. 7, 2005, with the Orlando Magic to help in the shelters. I was angry that my country so badly failed thousands of Americans who were stranded in the Louisiana Superdome and the Convention Center. Almost all were poor and African-American. My life changed that day.

I also have been thinking back to the moments after Katrina when we entered shelters and saw scores of listless, hopeless people with eyes glazed over become transformed when they saw the Magic. Suddenly, there were smiling faces with glistening eyes as they moved toward the players. I saw all the New Orleans Saints shirts and caps people were wearing when they were engulfed in the fury of the waters that flooded their neighborhoods.

Over and over, I saw the power of sport bringing people together and giving them hope. An 87-year-old woman told me her 106-year-old mother regained hope when she saw the Magic because it meant people from outside cared about New Orleans and its people.

I have been working in the world of sport for almost four decades and have seen sport and athletes work to transform society, help it heal and help people believe that strength will return.

And ever since that first visit after Hurricane Katrina, like many other Americans, I hoped I could do something to help the people of New Orleans who remain to this day in such tremendous need.


I have never been a resident of New Orleans, but I became a citizen in my heart with that first visit in 2005. That feeling returned in December 2006, when I met Stanley and Betty Stewart. Since then, my wife, Ann, and I have spent 15 weeks there gutting and rebuilding, often with the help of students in the graduate program in the DeVos College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida.

Richard Lapchick & Stanley Stewart
Courtesy Richard Lapchick Stanley Stewart, left, and Richard Lapchick have become close friends following rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina three years ago. The City Council of New Orleans named Lapchick an "honorary citizen" earlier this year for his work.

We were at Stanley's home 10 days ago, on the night of Aug. 21, with 52 of my graduate students from the DeVos program who had just done a week of service in New Orleans. Inside the Stewarts' house is what Stanley calls a "Wall of Fame," which features family photos, along with photos of all the DeVos students, Ann, me and our daughter, Emily, who had been woven into the lives of the Stewart family. There are pictures of a crew of more than 20 roofers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers from the Berkshires who were led by Massachusetts State Rep. Smitty Pignatelli and had spent six days doing all the skilled labor to restore the house. And there was also a picture of LeBron James with Stanley and Betty Stewart. More about that later.

During the past several days, as Gustav approached, I have seen Arnie Fielkow on TV. As a leader on the New Orleans City Council, he was in the forefront of preparations. Sunday night, he told me what had become obvious: "This storm is serious."

I have been a close friend of Fielkow, who was executive vice president for business for the New Orleans Saints at the time of Katrina. When Saints owner Tom Benson tried to move the team to San Antonio, Fielkow stood up to say that the Saints, in good conscience, could not leave. Fielkow said the Saints needed to be a part of the community's recovery.

Benson dismissed Fielkow. But the Saints later were forced by the NFL to return to New Orleans when the Superdome, the symbol of so much horror, reopened its doors for fans in 2006. It was another day that showed how the power of sports could bring people together.

Fielkow was elected to the city council and served as its president earlier this year. Back in 2006, he helped arrange our first service trip to the city. Just 10 days ago, he and the city council saluted the 52 DeVos students working for the city's recovery efforts through the Hope for Stanley Foundation. Later that night, at the Stewarts' home, we learned that we had been to New Orleans more than any other group from outside the city.


My wife, daughter and 10 DeVos students and two friends from Boston, Pignatelli and Allyce Najimy, met in New Orleans on Dec. 17, 2006. We talked that night about our expectations. I told the students I was confident that we would never be the same people after that week.

The next morning, an aide to Fielkow, Broderick Green, took us on a tour of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ending in the Lower Ninth Ward, where the worst devastation took place. Broderick stopped at a spot where two barges had crashed through the levees, letting water pour into the Ninth Ward. Nearby on the other side of the Industrial Canal was the French Quarter, which was relatively safe because the levees broke and flooded the Ninth Ward.

We began to recognize what we were looking at. We saw remains of homes that had clearly not been reinhabited 16 months after Katrina. As we looked more closely at the land around us, we realized that there were slabs of concrete representing all that was left of the homes nearest the breach. Broderick told us that before FEMA would set up trailers and help people return, there had to be water and power. The Ninth Ward received water and power about a year after Katrina.

In all my trips back to New Orleans with first-time visitors, I have always taken them on a similar tour. By now, I know the streets of New Orleans better than my hometown of Orlando. I did this again two weeks ago. We saw five of the so-called "Brad Pitt" homes under construction, a sure sign of hope. Pitt created the Make It Right Foundation to help the reconstruction effort. But throughout the Lower Ninth, after three years of rebuilding, approximately one home on every other block is occupied. Aside from the excitement of the Pitt homes and a handful of others, two weeks ago the Lower Ninth looked too much like it did in 2006, when we became so angry at what we saw.


Stanley Stewart, then 51, had lived in what was clearly a beautiful home prior to the storm. The courtyard was made of brick and wrought iron. Stewart had built his home over the course of many years. In that first meeting in December 2006, as we gutted and listened, he told us about the storm and its aftermath. It haunts me to this day, even though I have heard him tell it dozens of times.

He said he, Betty, their four daughters and their niece, who had since lived in a small FEMA trailer next to what was left of his home, watched the water come across a field in front of their house. He said the water looked like a tidal wave and churned for hours. He pointed to telephone poles that were 30 feet high and said the water went completely over the top of them. Stanley Stewart said that within 10 minutes, his home had gone from being dry to having 14 feet of water inside. He said he and his wife had rarely disagreed about anything regarding the house, but she did not want him to build a second story over the main part of the house. As they scrambled to the second floor, Betty knew that if she had won the argument, her family probably would have been among an estimated 1,800 who died in the hurricane and subsequent floods.

As rescue boats came by the next day, Stanley Stewart told them where to find people who were even more desperate, some even perched in trees across the field. Finally, they made it to the Convention Center. Stanley organized some men to be sure that every woman, child and all who were ill got on the buses when they finally came to clear the area. In doing so, Stewart was separated from his family for months. He ended up in Birmingham, Ala., and after he was reunited with his family, they stayed there until they could get a FEMA trailer more than a year after the storm.

When I spoke with Stanley on Sunday afternoon, he had gotten the entire family back to Birmingham, in the same place they stayed in 2005. A deeply religious man, Stanley told me: "I thank God that we are all safe and all together tonight."

We helped Stewart and his family get back into their home, and formed the Hope for Stanley Foundation. The mission is to organize volunteer student-athletes and people in the world of sports -- through All Congregations Together (ACT), Habitat for Humanity and the St. Bernard Project -- to rebuild dozens of other homes. Of all the things I have been able to do in my 63 years, our time in New Orleans has been the greatest blessing in my life, the life of my family and those of our students.


Stanley and Betty have become close friends who are more like family. They have come to see the students in Orlando three times since our first days of work on their home. After one of their visits, in February, they flew home and discovered on arrival that Stanley's father was critically ill and had to be hospitalized. Later that night, Stanley was with his mom in his front yard when they heard gun shots a block away. The nephew that Stanley and Betty Stewart had raised was shot 18 times and killed.

LeBron James & Stanley Stewart
Courtesy Richard LapchickStewart and his wife, Betty, met LeBron James during the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans in February. It was an uplifting moment for the Stewarts after so much tragedy in their lives.

Before that happened, I had asked the NBA for tickets to take Stanley and Betty to the All-Star Game, which at the time was about a week away. Ann feared it was too soon, but I asked them anyway.

We went to the festivities both nights and the Stewarts were elated, their spirits lifted from the depths of the loss of their nephew. We were in an NBA hotel the night before the game, and that is where the photo with LeBron James was taken by Emily. As soon as Stanley got it, the picture went up on his "Wall of Fame." He was thrilled when I introduced him to many of the legends of the game. It was sport, once again, lifting spirits.

I will be watching intently with Ann as Gustav moves, praying for the city and its people that we love so much. Stanley Stewart and the 106-year-old woman in the shelter have shown me the resiliency of the people of New Orleans. I believe that their commitment to their community will once again help New Orleans recover from whatever happens this week.

Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular ESPN.com commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com