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The most important thing for Notre Dame

Ken Fowler | Thursday, January 4, 2007

NEW ORLEANS – The purple, blue and yellow-gold paint on the monkey bars and swing sets dried underneath the sun. For one last day before the Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame and LSU were united in making at least a small contribution to New Orleans’ recovery.

More than 400 Notre Dame students, alumni, administrators and staff volunteered with their peers at LSU Tuesday at three sites across New Orleans for symbolic – and tangible – help toward a hopeful return to normalcy.

“It’s inspiring for us to join with the people of this area and to see their resilience and hard work in rebuilding this community,” University President Father John I. Jenkins said at Chatham Park in the Mirabeau Gardens neighborhood, which was overrun with water from the London Avenue Canal. “We’re honored to be here, and we’re honored to be part of this great effort.”

More than 100 people associated with Notre Dame and dozens more tied to LSU volunteered at the park, cleaning storm drains, painting park equipment and raking unkempt land.

Another set of volunteers aided the recovery effort through Operation Helping Hands in the Gentilly District of the Ninth Ward, the largest of New Orleans’ geographic regions. The Ninth Ward was among the worst hit areas of the city, and the volunteers gutted homes so that they could be renovated at some point. A third group of about 100 traveled to the Hope Haven Center in Marrero, La., a New Orleans suburb. They worked clean-up at the residential treatment facility for youngsters with behavioral, education or emotional problems.

Chatham Park had different circumstances from the other two sites but the same result. The park had been in the center of a wealthy enclave off the city until Katrina hit. Now, it’s barren.

“This neighborhood sat in over six and a half feet of water for over 16 days,” Mirabeau Neighbors Association President Laurie Watt said. “We will never forget this day because every day we will drive by our parks and we’ll have purple, blue and gold-yellow on our swing set.”

But the days when Mirabeau Gardens was a busy community with hundreds of families seem long lost. The houses in the neighborhood still bear the spray-painted X’s on front doors and windows that marked the passing through of task forces after Katrina. In the upper quadrant lies the date of inspection; most in the area were from 9-16 to 9-21. In the lower portion of the X is the number of bodies found; despite the towering flood waters, most houses had zeros. The side quadrants are reserved for indications of pets and other important objects left behind; “ONE dog survived” was one of the few extra surprises.

Trailers outside of unlivable homes mark the homes of residents who want to rebuild and are already back. But the population has not even reached half of its prior 460,000.

So with their fans in town for the Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame and LSU did what they could to rebuild a community with a sense of community.

LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe, four Tigers cheerleaders and Mike the Tiger, LSU’s mascot, pitched in as part of the joint effort. Along with Jenkins, Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White, Provost Thomas Burish and Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves also worked at the park as representatives of Notre Dame.

For White, who served as athletic director at Tulane University in New Orleans from 1991 until 1996, the devastation hit close to home. He traveled to New Orleans for half a week in October when a group of 15 student-athletes and four administrators spent their fall break gutting houses and aiding the clean-up efforts. White spent the days he was in the Crescent City working with the students, and he said he talks regularly to his friends from his Tulane days.

Jenkins first visited New Orleans in October of 2005 with a group of faculty to assess how Notre Dame could help in the rebuilding efforts. Fifteen months later, he returned as part of the University delegation for the Sugar Bowl.

“We will compete hard tomorrow, but to bring together these two great institutions in this common effort is a great testament to what universities are about and what college athletics can do in a very positive way.”

Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu made a brief appearance to encourage and praise the volunteers.

“There are a lot of folks from Louisiana who have loved Notre Dame for a long time, and it was just a great gift for us to have you guys in the Sugar Bowl with the LSU Tigers,” Landrieu said. “It really has been heartwarming for those of us in Louisiana to see the outpouring of support from our friends and our brothers from across the country who have spent a tremendous amount of time down here.”

Landrieu praised the work of faith-based organizations in the area, including Catholic Charities, which helped organize Tuesday’s events.

Doug Drysdale, a Notre Dame Law School alumnus, and his wife Heidi, a graduate of Saint Mary’s, spent a day and a half refurbishing a community welcome sign that floated away during Katrina. Along with their son Jake, they came to New Orleans from Saint Louis without tickets to the game or a hotel room for game night.

“It was an opportunity for us to do something for a family,” Doug Drysdale said. “We wanted to do something outside ourselves, to really help somebody else. This is more important than the game.”

Young Jake wanted to see the Sugar Bowl, but he knew there were other priorities.

“We wanted to come down for like the Notre Dame and LSU game, and we also wanted to come and help the people down in New Orleans because we knew they needed help,” he said.

According to figures provided by the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, 18,700 of the 81,000 businesses in the greater New Orleans open before Katrina hit are still closed in October. Much of the damage to city businesses came in the form of flooding.

Gregory Blackwell, director of media relations for the Sugar Bowl, says the Sugar Bowl’s average economic impact on the area was $175 million, with the Jan. 3, 2005, contest between Auburn and Virginia Tech setting the high-water mark of $200 million. Landrieu says the state expects Wednesday’s game and the surrounding events to draw in at least $250 million for the state.

But more than money, New Orleans needs manpower to clean up the mess in what once were vibrant, attractive streets.

“I want to thank all of you from Notre Dame for coming to our home town and being part of this experience and being part of a recovery effort that’s a longstanding challenge that we’re going to be facing for years to come,” O’Keefe said. “We want to thank you for that – in dedicating your time and energy towards making this a city we’re all very proud of.”

Doug Drysdale said he was happy to make whatever impact he could on the small community in which he worked. And he hopes his impact is seen through the sign he brought back to Mirabeau Gardens.

“Sort of a symbolic gesture of the neighborhood’s recovering and of the residents who are trying to bring it back,” he said of the sign. “It floated away during the hurricane and the subsequent flood. They just discovered it recently. Now it’s back, it’s up, it’s primed, it’s painted, it’s landscaped. It’s an entrance, it’s a gesture and it’s a symbol of the neighborhood’s recovery. And we’re honored to be part of it.”