Gil LeBreton

Football helped save Cowboys’ Dunbar, city from Katrina

As Lance Dunbar remembers, it was like any other storm warning.

The schools were closed. The family car was being packed. The TV was tuned to the round-the-clock weather reports.

If you were a kid growing up in New Orleans, you knew the drill.

“Just another hurricane evacuation,” Dunbar says now. “We were excited to be going.”

Dunbar, then a sophomore at De La Salle High School on St. Charles Avenue, left New Orleans that day, ahead of the approaching Hurricane Katrina.

In so many ways, that Lance Dunbar never returned.

Ten years later, Dunbar is in his fourth professional season, fighting for a starting running back job with the Dallas Cowboys.

“That day we left, I was actually looking forward to the trip,” Dunbar said at the Cowboys’ camp in Oxnard, Calif. “It was something we always did. We figured we would be back in a day or two and nothing would happen.

“We were just going to play video games and eat snacks all day.”

From their Terrytown neighborhood on the city’s West Bank, Dunbar’s mother, Patricia Jones, joined the crawl of vehicles headed toward Mississippi. Three weeks later, New Orleans was still in chaos and Jones had secured FEMA lodging at a motel in north Fort Worth.

Getting the kids back into school and Lance back into football helped to re-anchor the family. By midseason Dunbar was carrying the football often for the Haltom varsity.

If you grew up in New Orleans in the ’60s or ’70s, the idea of a hurricane evacuation was as tangible as a trip to the moon. Hurricane preparation only meant nailing plywood boards to the windows and a trip to Schwegmann’s grocery on Airline Highway.

As Katrina neared, my 92-year-old Aunt Helen — known as “Doo-Doo” by the family — performed the only hurricane evacuation she had ever known: She walked next door to her neighbors’ home, taking her plastic-wrapped packet of pills and vital papers with her.

Monitoring the storm, 500 miles away, my first sign of Katrina’s deadly impact came in the middle of the night. WWL Radio, the clear-channel voice that unites native New Orleanians east of the Rockies, had been knocked off the air.

The next day, as the first reports of levee failures and flooding came in, we found ourselves scrambling to locate loved ones. Thousands of Orleanians had, in fact, not evacuated, and the ones in the poorest sections near downtown, the housing projects, had fled to the Louisiana Superdome and the Convention Center, neither of which was meant to be an emergency shelter.

My Aunt Helen finally surfaced in Tyler after being handed off from one caring friend to another. The memory of the phone call — “I think we have your aunt here” — still brings tears to my eyes.

One by one, our family found each other. Two of my dearest cousins, Gerri and Sid, lost their Slidell homes.

Will Clark, the former Rangers first baseman and a fellow Jesuit High alum, emailed me photos of him riding in a boat down Carrollton Avenue.

Eventually, though, the brackish flood waters subsided. The schools reopened. Neighborhoods were rebuilt. Ten years later, there are more restaurants in New Orleans than before Katrina. Oak trees have been replanted, and the old golf course at City Park has reopened.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue helped to save the beloved Saints, and then quarterback Drew Brees finished the miracle by winning Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after the storm.

In the end, football helped to reunite and rebuild New Orleans as much as anything.

The Superdome reopened, better than ever. With a gift from then-Saints running back Reggie Bush, the city’s historic Tad Gormley Stadium reopened for the high schools.

Lance Dunbar took advantage of his new life in Texas and went from Haltom to North Texas to a place in the NFL.

Our Aunt Helen passed away in 2009. She was 95.

A good Catholic town like New Orleans tends to see a godly hand in everything. Maybe Katrina was meant to be.

It gave us that one month with Aunt Helen. It brought Drew Brees to New Orleans. It steered Lance Dunbar to the NFL.

Amen.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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