The caller from the Gulf Coast stared Hurricane Isaac in the eye and refused to blink, bracing himself for an unsettling day ahead.
"It's raining pretty hard, and it's blowing pretty fierce," Deuce McAllister said late Tuesday night as he hunkered down inside a Gulfport, Miss., hotel lobby. "It's a big storm. But believe me, I've seen worse."
For a second or two, McAllister and I allowed ourselves an ironic chuckle at the absurdity of his understatement. Seven years ago, when he was a star running back for the Saints and I was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, we spent two days in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina touring evacuation shelters in Mississippi and bearing vivid and surreal witness to the flooded devastation of New Orleans.
That was how we met – experiencing the worst natural disaster in U.S. history with up-close-and-personal clarity – and in the years since neither of us has come close to forgetting the destruction, displacement and emotion we encountered amid the wreckage. It takes only a few, sentence-fragment-length prompts to stir the memories: The shell-shocked survivors squatting irrationally in otherwise abandoned high-rises above the floodwaters; the evacuee-laced airport scene McAllister likened to "Hotel Rwanda"; the large truck on the interstate speeding toward downtown New Orleans loaded up with coffins.
[Yahoo! News: Live hurricane blog]
Those images came rushing back Monday as I considered the notion that McAllister, and the region he loves, may once again be confronted with a hellacious hurricane. He did his best to downplay the situation, saying, "There are a lot of 'essential personnel' at this hotel, and if it's safe enough for them, I think it's safe enough for me."
Yet even as McAllister hoped for the best, noting news reports late Tuesday that the storm had stalled and was not likely to approach the force of its infamous predecessor, the Saints' all-time rushing leader braced for the worst, recalling that the early optimism in Katrina's wake turned out to be nature's equivalent of a trick play.
"It blew over," McAllister recalled. "That's what was reported early on. That's what they felt like – that it was a bad rainstorm and New Orleans had been spared. But it wasn't the hurricane; it was all the flooding that followed. This storm is not as big as Katrina, but it has the potential to be just as bad."
That Isaac is hitting the Gulf Coast almost exactly seven years to the day makes the Katrina connection impossible to ignore. "I try not to think about it," McAllister said, "but it's spooky in and of itself, just because of the timeline."
Are we better off today than we were seven years ago? Again, there is hope, on multiple fronts.
During a 2006 tour of the Crescent City's levees and canals, a pair of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials showed me the post-Katrina improvements that had been initiated and explained why they felt the deadly post-Katrina overflows and breaches were not likely to be repeated.
McAllister has had similar experiences. "I've been out there," he said. "I've seen some of the equipment. They can pump out half an inch of water every 30 minutes, which is good. But what if you're getting two inches of rain an hour? Will those systems fail? I think it's yet to be determined, but I don't ever think they've done enough."
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We agreed that government officials, on federal, state and local levels, were likely to be far more responsive than in the aftermath of Katrina.
"Yeah, they won't make the same mistakes they made last time," McAllister said. "They're so much more prepared. In the past, there was never a plan. And after Katrina hit, we were all asking, 'Where are they?' If disaster strikes now, I believe, they'll be ready."
McAllister, who retired after the 2008 season, is among those preparing for the possibility of a massive cleanup effort. He works with a company called Waste Pro that may be one of many mobilized into action in Isaac's wake. "There's a lot of waste that needs to be disposed of after a storm," he said. "I'm also involved in a company that does food service, so if people are displaced for a long period of time, we'll be pressed into service as well."
Those endeavors are part of what amounts to a professional comeback for McAllister, a Mississippi native whose Jackson-based Nissan dealership filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009. Last year McAllister's home in Luling, La., was auctioned off via court order as part of a bank lawsuit that was later settled.
He remains closely tied to a Saints organization that has done right by the former Pro Bowler since releasing him in the wake of two serious knee injuries. They brought him back as an honorary captain during the team's 2009 championship run, presenting him with a Super Bowl XLIV ring and using him as a team ambassador for community events. That is why the recent bounty scandal hit McAllister hard.
"It hurts because those guys are my friends," he said, "and people think that's what you were about, when it's the furthest thing from what reality was."
He believes Isaac may be one distraction too many for a team attempting to battle through adversity and reach another Super Bowl, this time in its own stadium.
McAllister understands how hard it can be to cope with a forced relocation. He experienced the trying post-Katrina working conditions that plagued the Saints throughout the '05 season, which included regular walk-throughs in the parking lot outside the San Antonio Water System headquarters where the team's temporary offices were located.
The Saints skipped town in advance of Isaac and are practicing in Cincinnati through Wednesday, when they'll head to Nashville for Thursday's preseason finale against the Tennessee Titans. If they become vagabonds for an extended period, McAllister believes it will likely affect the Saints on the field, especially given the upheaval caused by head coach Sean Payton's yearlong suspension and the organizational decision to appoint two interim replacements.
"Up until this point, I thought they were in a perfect spot," McAllister said. "Before the storm I had them winning between 11 and 13 games. I figured with [Drew] Brees running the offense, with the two wild cards, [Darren] Sproles and [Jimmy] Graham, posing matchup problems, they'd be fine, and they wouldn't even miss Sean till they got to the playoffs.
"If this just blows over, they'll be OK. I think they can handle the distractions and be in a great position to make a run. But if this is bad and lingers on? All bets are off. That's a lot to handle, and it's a very real concern."
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Certainly, McAllister is far more concerned with the safety of his fellow Gulf Coast citizens; he's not one to overstate the significance of football amid such a sobering backdrop. Yet McAllister, like many of us, derived a new appreciation in Katrina's aftermath for the degree to which an NFL franchise can have a powerful effect on a region's collective psyche and, for some, provide comfort and salvation in times of great stress.
This seems to have been particularly true of the Saints, whose emotional victory in their first game following Katrina, the '05 season opener against the Panthers in Carolina, captivated a sports-watching nation and convinced numerous New Orleans players that they were representing something greater than their own interests.
When the displaced Saints returned to the Superdome in '06, with Payton as their rookie coach, the magic that ensued through a stunning NFC championship game appearance was exhilarating, setting the stage for the franchise's first title run three years later.
"It was very moving," McAllister said, "because as all of this played out, you really understood from a national perspective what that team meant to that city. We can think back to some of the negative comments after Katrina, about everyone relocating, the economy never being the same, the region never bouncing back. And now, it's thriving again. Through that, the Saints have been a source of pride, and maybe a symbol."
Partly for that reason – and partly because of those haunting experiences seven years ago – McAllister is prepared to do his part if Isaac's outcome is anywhere near as severe as its horrific predecessor's.
On a professional level, waste disposal is his calling. As one of the most beloved and decorated players in the history of a franchise with which so many locals identify, McAllister knows that simply being a Saint has a value that only those who were reeling from the madness in 2005 can truly appreciate.
"If this one turns bad?" McAllister said, repeating my question. "Yeah, I'll be there. I'll go to the shelters; I'll go to the city. I'll get with the people. Of course I will."
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