EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is an excerpt from the book The Hurricanes: One High School Team’s Homecoming After Katrina by Jeré Longman. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina pummeled the lower end of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a peninsula housing one of the nation’s most isolated, vulnerable, and vital counties. A year later several ravaged communities came together to form South Plaquemines High. Kids who were former rivals defiantly nicknamed their football team the Hurricanes and made the 2006 state playoffs.
In 2007, South Plaquemines set its sights on a state championship. The Hurricanes used a trailer as a makeshift locker room and lifted weights in a destroyed gym that had no electricity. For the players, many of them still living in FEMA trailers, football offered a refuge. Bestselling author Jeré Longman spent two seasons following the team. In The Hurricanes, the team’s journey provides a lens through which to view the legacy of Katrina, the cycle of poverty in rural America, and the attempt to maintain traditions in the face of uncertainty. Football is a familiar remnant of the way things used to be-and a sign of hope in a place of disaster.
BOOK EXCERPT — The Hurricanes: One High School Team’s Homecoming After Katrina by Jeré Longman
Eleven rows of bleachers led upward to a bank of windows below the ceiling. A wall of water had formed in Breton Sound to the east. Pushed by Hurricane Katrina’s counter-clockwise winds, the storm surge had swamped the east bank of lower Plaquemines, crossed the Mississippi River and topped and breached the river levee on the west bank, pouring into Port Sulphur. To the players in the gym, it seemed now that the school was in the middle of the Gulf. Water rose steadily. In the semi-darkness, it was brown-black, like the Skoal that Plaquemines head coach Cyril Crutchfield Jr. dipped, and it rose steadily, up one row of bleachers then the next.
The 2002 state championship trophy drifted by, a large wooden plaque with the embedded shape of Louisiana attached to a trophy of a man carrying a football. Crutchfield slapped at the water with a stick until he could grab the trophy. Then he spotted his duffel bag, containing a Bible and some clothes, which he had used as a pillow. Apparently, it had floated outside of the school from the cafeteria and circled back into the gymnasium.
The wind sounded like a freight train but louder, a great metallic whooshing roar. Debris slammed into the walls of the gym and the men began to fear that water would rise above the windows, cutting off their only escape route. They might have to swim outside if the water kept coming up. Maybe they could make it to the roof of the gym. They broke into a concession stand above the bleachers and searched for anything that might keep them afloat. One man found an ice chest. Somebody else grabbed a football. Wade Gabriel was the only one with a life jacket. His brother had given it to him before the storm.
“If I don’t make it, at least they’ll find my body,” he told his friend, Russell Smith. Gabriel tried to convince his friend to slip into the water and grab the padding around a volleyball net, but Smith seemed scared and distracted.
Water kept coming up, submerging the rims of the backboard ten feet above the court. It climbed until it had claimed seven or eight rows of bleachers. Only three or four rows remained dry. The men moved higher and higher and began to pray. They held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. Crutchfield told himself, Man, I shoulda left; I shoulda left.
And he made a vow, Lord if you get me out of this one, I’ll never stay again.
Gabriel began to fear that the other men might panic and strip him of his life jacket. Then things seemed to grow calm. It felt as if the eye of the hurricane had passed over Port Sulphur. “I’ll go check things out,” Gabriel told the others. He tied a fire hose around his waist, climbed out of a window in the gym and plopped into the water. It was full of oil and chemicals and logs and ice chests. He dogpaddled toward the library on the second floor of the school. It seemed to be taking forever. Please don’t let a shark bite me, he told himself.
Using an oyster hatchet, Gabriel broke a window in the library, pulled himself inside, walked down a hallway and found some dry clothes in Crutchfield’s classroom. The others remained in the flooded gym as wood and other debris circled slowly along the stage then meandering toward the bleachers. A black Labrador retriever floated in on what looked like a school bulletin board. One moment the dog wasn’t there and the next moment it drifted past, both angry and stunned by fear.
The surge began to recede, row by row in the bleachers, seemingly as quickly as it had risen. Cobb, who was six-foot-five, jumped into the water to gauge its depth. He found himself submerged nearly to his neck. Cobb kept his eyes on the Labrador retriever. He knew that some people trapped alligators with dead dogs, and he figured if a gator had come into the gym, it might go after the Lab first. He also remained alert for water moccasins, fearing that one of the tired snakes might try to rest on his head or shoulders and bite him when he flung it away.
As the water kept retreating, Crutchfield grew afraid that the backside of the hurricane would trap the men again. This time they might not make it out alive.
“We better get out,” Crutchfield told the others.
“I ain’t gonna make it,” the four hundred pound man said.
“You can stay in here, but I’m gettin’ out,” Crutchfield said.
“Man, come on, come on,” the others pleaded.
“No, I’m gone.”
With the water between their chests and waists, the men began to leave the gym in single file. This was the scariest time for Crutchfield. He stepped on things, unknown objects, that terrified him and conjured images from a movie he had just seen about giant anacondas. Carrying the trophy inside his duffel bag, he half ran and half swam, splashing his way out of the gym. He passed one of the other guys in line and bounded up a flight of stairs into a classroom that was dry and safe on the second floor.
While separated from the others, Gabriel grabbed a video camera and began filming from a second-floor classroom. At first the wind was docile. Port Sulphur appeared to have become a lake. Houses had floated free of their foundations, sliding into each other like bumper cars. The football locker room was completely submerged. Much of the cafeteria remained under water. Gabriel lamented the fate of an elderly aunt who had been too stubborn to leave and had surely drowned.
“Old Teece had a hard head,” he said, his voice captured on the video. “God knows when they gonna find her.”
A gasoline storage tank bobbed lazily in the water. Then the wind kicked up again with the rear side of the storm. It blew with the scouring sound of sandblasting and the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapons fire. Part of a Coke machine hung in the top of a tree. Swells began to roll through the schoolyard and sheets of white rain blew like snow over the surface of the water. A desk floated outside the school, along with a miniature American flag in its stand. The top of Gabriel’s white truck poked through the surface. So did the roof of Crutchfield’s Explorer. The windows were down and the ruined vehicle was nothing more than a four-wheel-drive reef for whatever fish might float by.
Eventually, the others reunited with Gabriel in the library. The men found chips and sodas from snack machines. Some scavenged bottles of water from teacher’s desks. Crutchfield located some alcohol to pour on the deep cut on Cobb’s leg.
It dawned on Crutchfield that a second, smaller bag of his was missing. This one had his wallet inside, along with some papers to grade in his social studies class. Crutchfield had taken five hundred dollars out of the bank before the storm. Now, he feared it had floated away. Maybe it was in the cafeteria. The water was now just below his knees, but he was afraid of snakes. Suddenly, the money didn’t seem to matter so much. Crutchfield stood on a table in the cafeteria and looked around quickly and said, “It ain’t here, let’s go.”
Another man in the group, Jody Mackey, sloshed down a hallway past the principal’s office and called out, “Come here, man.” When Crutchfield skittishly rounded a corner, Mackey had grabbed his bag before it floated out of the school. Relieved, Crutchfield wanted to give him half the money.
Gabriel panned his camera to the Port Sulphur football field. The purple press box stood like a buoy in the water. Only the top of the metal bleachers was visible. Small white caps crested over the playing surface. Waves flowed just beneath the crossbars of the goalposts.
The scoreboard was gone. Crutchfield grew momentarily confused. He couldn’t get his bearings. Buildings had seemed to shift positions with other buildings as if in some cruel game of pinochle.
“Oh, look over here,” Crutchfield said to Gabriel.
The coach’s apartment house had cracked open like an egg shell. Part of it snagged on a stadium fence. The other part drifted the length of the field and rammed into a civic center behind the west end zone.
As the wind began to subside a final time from hurricane force, the men climbed to the roof of the school. An hour later, maybe two hours later, they spotted a Coast Guard helicopter. They waved a yellow curtain as a signaling flag. The chopper paused, then kept going. Apparently, the pilot was spotting survivors and radioing to others who would carry out the rescues.
At the Plaquemines Parish emergency center in Belle Chasse, Big Wayne Williamson urged his fellow deputies to check the school for survivors. A boat was on the way, he was told. About four thirty in the afternoon, Col. Guey arrived at Port Sulphur High in an airboat. The men looked haggard. “Don’t say anything,” a chastened Crutchfield said to the man who warned him to leave.
The eight survivors were whisked from the school and deposited a couple hundred yards away on the Mississippi River levee. There they awaited a larger rescue boat that would transport them upriver.
Crutchfield stood atop the levee, arms folded across his chest, as Gabriel asked on camera, “Would you ever stay again for a Category 5?”
“I’m going back to Covington,” Crutchfield said of his hometown.
“Think we gonna play Saturday, or anytime this week?” Gabriel asked. “How we lookin’ coach?”
Crutchfield bent over in rueful laughter.
“Ain’t lookin’ too good,” he said.
He shook his head in disbelief.
The hurricane had eaten away at the levees, leaving sheet piling exposed. Telephone poles leaned in the wind. The roadway that had been Highway 23 now resembled a canal.
“Water as far as you can see,” Gabriel said on the video. “Twenty foot of water in lower Plaquemines.”
The levee was littered with paper, sticks, wood, part of a door. Then Gabriel shot a close-up of a white casket splattered with mud and leaves. And he found something else in the high grass. “Several caskets,” he continued in his elegiac monologue. “Uprooted. Bodies all alongside the levees, caskets.”
Then, to Crutchfield: “Main thing, we survived it.”
Crutchfield walked toward him, the levee path rutted, the wind still rippling his T-shirt, and smiled a survivor’s smile. “Yeah, I left on my back and on your back, too.”
Finally, in late afternoon, a forty-foot rescue boat arrived and took the men upriver to a shelter at Belle Chasse. Along the way, Crutchfield saw more caskets on the levee, coal barges stranded with their cargo, houses scattered like driftwood.
There wouldn’t be a game the first week, he told himself. Maybe three or four weeks. He was so hellbent on a season, an atomic bomb could have hit and he would said, We have to play some ball. He just didn’t know when.
See the book reviews and purchase at Amazon.com — The Hurricanes: One High School Team’s Homecoming After Katrina