row2k Features
Tulane after Katrina
DO NOT BULLDOZE
March 15, 2006
Ed Hewitt, row2k.com

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What hurricane? Let's race
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See also row2k's complete race (and disaster tour) galleries

Back in February, I wrote Bob Jaugstetter, head coach of Tulane crew, to ask if it would be possible for row2k to travel to New Orleans for Tulane's season opener to "witness the rising of the Phoenix, or in this case the rising of the Green Wave." Jaugstetter responded thusly: "You probably don't want to talk too much about rising waves around here."

Jaugstetter, whose job description, as you'll see, could be revised to Fearless Leader without the least irony, possesses a steady, apparently indomitable sense of humor, and was laughing in the face of fate (as has become habit in New Orleans) - but it is no joke: despite recent upbeat news reports from Mardi Gras, New Orleans remains undeniably a disaster area. For folks like me whose knowledge of the devastation comes from isolated news reports, there may be no way to understand the scale of the destruction without seeing it; as one local said, "you can't really understand it until you go wallow in it."

When I arrived, Jaugstetter took me on the obligatory "disaster tour," which sounds ghoulish until you see the glossy "Katrina Bus Tour" brochures alongside the riverboat rides and jazz walking tour information in hotel lobbies. (I didn't take or post tons of photos, but you can get the idea here.)

The extent of the destruction is hard to fathom; we drove at least 20 miles, and I would estimate I saw perhaps 50 habitable structures, and maybe 100 people who were not salvage workers. Photographs and three-minute TV spots don't begin to do it justice - maybe a few thousand photographs could begin to do so - but even then, these seem like isolated instances, and this is more like a continuous swath of destruction.

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School Zone, 20 mph
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Our drive took us through wealthy and less wealthy neighborhoods alike; despite many news reports to the contrary, this was an equal opportunity disaster. In one neighborhood I saw elegant brick and stucco Mediterranean-style reduced nearly to rubble; in another, less sturdy wooden homes were nothing more than piles of splintered wood. We stopped to look at a car sitting atop another car, and it took a solid minute to figure out that right behind it was a pickup truck wrapped in a garage. Street signs marking school speed limits led to houses dropped in the middle of the street. The top floor of the nearby Coast Guard station was ripped off and tossed 20 yards. Street medians in the wealthier neighborhoods were marked by three-story high piles of dirt - it turned out these were piles of woodchips, made when rescue workers fed the majority of local trees and entire interiors of homes into massive chipping machines. There are no stoplights in most of the city; makeshift STOP signs have been stabbed into the dirt at intersections, competing with darkened traffic lights for the visiting driver's attention. The only upside to the confusion at the wheel is that no one is around; you can be the only car you see for blocks. Even the Wal-Mart is gutted and deserted; they only way to tell it was a Wal-Mart is shadows of missing letters on the front of the building.

As you drive around, the folktale of the little pigs comes to mind - most wood houses are gone, while many stone houses are standing - until you peer through the window panes (the windows are gone) of the stone houses to find that the rush of water utterly gutted the buildings. Outside, the scum line from the water stands three-four meters up the wall, and neither interior drywall and insulation, or even the exterior masonry, is built to withstand several days under water.

I didn't see just a few houses in this condition - this is the situation for block and blocks and miles and miles. Some 2-300,000 homes have been destroyed; if I were to try to put the destruction into the context of rowing towns with which many readers are familiar, it would be like if in Philadelphia, in Boathouse Row and some downtown buildings were left standing and were just now reopening after six months - Katrina hit in August, remember - while the Fairmount area (where a lot of rowers live), Manayunk, Roxborough, and pretty much every structure north of Vine Street was decimated or uninhabitable, and without water, power, or people. If you consider the rest of the delta south of New Orleans as well, where towns were completely obliterated and now only exist on maps, then there would be wreckage all the way to Atlantic City.

And it isn't past history - blackouts remain a regular occurrence; imagine how much news coverage there would be if this were the case in a media capital - say the whole of Queens and the Bronx was flattened, and Manhattan experienced regular blackouts for six-eight months.

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WV8 on racing levee, repairs underway in distance
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It turns out that one levee did not fail - on the canal on which the Tulane crews row. The devastation, then, comes right up to either side of their waterway - the canals on both sides of their canal were breached, and rolled through the neighborhoods right up to the walls of the canal they raced on this weekend. Just three blocks away, the house in which the family of rowing Olympian Raoul Rodriguez lived was among the casualties; it is windowless, without interior walls, and mostly roofless. The reports from Mardi Gras are somewhat misleading; as Bob explained to me, New Orleans is shaped like a bowl, with the edges along the river having the highest elevation. As a result, the French Quarter, which borders the Mississippi, had little to no water; as you drive north, however, the scum line on the buildings goes from thigh high, to head high, to well overhead, to 12-15 feet up the side of buildings in just a couple miles.

But I did not go to New Orleans to do a disaster report, I came to see the crews.

"Satellite Photos Are A Great Thing"
The night before Katrina hit, Jaugstetter and local sculler Fred King had a plan to go to the boathouse in the morning, lash down all the shells, and leave town. The three best shells of the fleet had been stored under the rec center at the university, some distance away. At around 2am, Jaugstetter decided he was evacuating; in the morning, he and King went and lashed down everything to which they could attach a tie, and at 1pm Jaugstetter drove out of New Orleans. (King decided to stay in town; it would be four months before Jaugstetter and King would be able to get in touch, and to know that both had survived the storm.)

Save for wind damage, the fleet might have been okay overall. Then the levees broke.

"Satellite photos are a great thing," Jaugstetter said when I asked how he kept track of the situation at the boathouse as the waters began to recede. "At first, I couldn't see anything, so just expected the worst. Then I could I could see the very top bar of our trailer - which I knew meant the walls of the boathouse were down."

Do Not Bulldoze
When Jaugstetter finally was able to return to New Orleans in December, he went immediately on rounds to assess the damage. The shells in the rec center were spared - at least from wind damage. "They did okay," Jaugstetter said. "They had floated up off the racks and bounced around a bit, but we got off mostly with bleached-out shoes and a few nicks and bumps."

The boats lashed to the racks at the boathouse didn't fare quite as well as had the warehouse floaters; the bows and sterns of all the shells had snapped and broken from the onslaught of wind and water.

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DO NOT BULLDOZE
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The area around the boathouse was all wreckage; a "Do Not Bulldoze" sign was placed up without irony. (Jaugstetter says they could "probably" take it down about now.)

Jaugstetter got some help from unexpected places: rowers from LSU, Fordham, and Northwestern State (LA) showed up to help, and raised a chainlink boathouse; and of course the matching gift effort by Mike Vespoli which concluded on March 1 raised in excess of $60,000 when all was said and done.

Jaugstetter got to work, patching the boats with spit and glue - it's not like the Home Depot is open - with the goal being primarily to make sure they would float. Still, several of the boats are doing just what they need to do - floating - and all will have to be overhauled dramatically, if not outright replaced. "We had to get the kids on the water; that was the main priority."

Tulane V8: Nine Athletes, Nine Different Schools
The fate of the Tulane eights in the fall of 2005 nearly defines the notion of diaspora; the nine members of the men's eight, at least, were at nine different schools just over two months ago. Rowers were scattered as far afield as Stanford, Boston, and Buffalo; some ended up about 75 miles away at LSU.

When the students returned, Jaugstetter and assistant coach Jesse McClure somehow found water time for everyone with only a few viable hulls, performing small miracles that are not unlike the story of the bread and the fish. By staggering practices and even alternating days - the women one day, the men the next; or the varsity one day, the novices the next - the rowing program gradually resembled at least a simulacrum of normalcy.

The courage and tenacity it took to come back and get in the boats was considerable; Jaugstetter admits to a couple tough mornings in the early going when student-athletes were overcome while driving in the early morning through utterly desolate, dark, silent streets, staring into the considerable devastation of their town just to get to practice.

Race Day
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Team Meeting
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At 9am on March 11, 2006 - the last day for Gulf Coast residents to apply for FEMA disaster assistance - a scheduled pre-race coxswain's meeting went off right on schedule. As per usual, University of Tennessee Chattanooga had brought their men's and women's squads to race the season opener; this year, Louisiana State University joined in on the regatta.

After the coxswain's meeting, the Tulane crew met as a team; the moment seemed extremely loaded to an outside observer, and there were some bright eyes - or maybe it was beaming and intent faces. "Back in December, I decided right away that the only way to do this was just to do it," Jaugstetter said later. "We couldn't go around feeling sorry for ourselves day after day. 'What Hurricane? Let's race;' that was the way to do it." The tees that the frosh and novice raced in - unis were ordered a bit later than usual this year - make the point.

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Climbing the levee wall
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Seasoned parents showed up with ladders in the back of minivans to scale the levee wall for the best view of the race course.

Novice crews with only 12-15 rows behind them - ever - made up for barely-sown skills with a heap of grit - the men's novice eight fell to a 1 3/4 length deficit before staging several comebacks that UTC answered repeatedly, with the Green Wave coming back to within 1.1 seconds at the finish line; there were also a few really good brawls in the fours. It was a splendid day of very varied racing - the women's crew from LSU counted off moves by spelling out "T-I-G-E-R-S" on each stroke, and a UTC men's eight did the same counting off tens. And a lot of the rowing was extremely solid - the Tulane men's eight broke their own course record by over eight seconds. Sure, they had help from a solid tailwind coming from the due south, but let's face it, that same south wind was anything but a friendly wind last August.

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Tulane MV8
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At regatta's end, many of the Tulane rowers bolted back to school - and to class and exams, as I will explain below - but the UTC crew set up a barbecue in the 80 degree afternoon sun and fed anyone who was hungry; it all looked unexpectedly, but comfortingly, like Situation Normal, end stop.

Four hours and eight races after what not so long ago would have seemed a very unlikely coxswain's meeting, Tulane rowing had resurfaced, - literally in many respects - raced, and even won.

Still, Fallout
Race day did not quite mark a full recovery for Tulane rowing - there is still a lot of equipment to be replaced, and soon after the racing was complete, Jaugstetter was talking with folks who might be able to help recover the team's trailer from its potential fate as a rust-heap. Prospects looked good;

Additionally, the students have a lot of time to make up - there are at least four rowers who will not race this year, as there were some classes that they could not make up elsewhere, so to continue progress toward a degree must take those classes on weekends, as Tulane is holding those "fall" classes on Saturday and Sundays this semester. (Several of those students continue to row from Monday through Friday just to stay in touch with the sport.) On Saturday, the women's eight event was the first race of the day because two members of the crew had to get back to campus for noon midterms.

The university is also doing some belt-tightening that has caused additional academic hardship. For example, last year's varsity coxswain has had to accelerate his studies, as it turns out that his department will be eliminated after this semester. If he wants a degree in his major from Tulane, he has to complete two years of studies by May. His course load is off the charts, and he won't be able to participate this year - although he did attend the race as a spectator. A member of the frosh team is at Tulane on a full academic scholarship - worth over $50,000/year - and his engineering major is being eliminated as well, rendering the scholarship considerably less useful, to say the least. In the absence of his very specific major, he will likely be forced to leave the school and abandon the scholarship.

Rowing and Reading, and Beers To Go
On race day, Charles Mosley visited the boathouse to see the crews and brush up on some boat-handling commands and techniques. As if Jaugstetter did not have enough to do in his own backyard, he has been helping Mosley start a program in Thibodeaux on Bayou LaFourche, about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans, loaning ergs and donating oars to the cause to date, and they're working next on getting a hull down to Thibodeaux. Mosley told me that reading levels in the region are typically two years or more behind the grade level in other parts of the state; he hopes to address the issue while introducing rowing to the area with a "Rowing and Reading" program to encourage improved reading skills while using rowing to introduce the youths of the area about opportunities they may have never known about, let alone participated in.

Just days before the race, the first tiny green leaves reappeared in the cypress grove in which the boathouse sits - over forty percent of the trees are gone, but Jaugstetter was nearly ecstatic that it finally looks like the trees left standing might actually recover. There is a long way to go - much of the recovery work in New Orleans has been stymied because there just isn't anyplace for workers to live, or returning families to stay while fixing their homes. Still, even on a working weekend I had an absurdly good time in New Orleans (mostly thanks to Jaugstetter, some good fortune, and the indomitability of New Orleans music), and there are few who have been able to make it back to town that think that the town won't make it back as well. Of course hope springs eternal, and there is no such thing as bad publicity: applications for admission to Tulane are up by at least double-digit percentages for next year, and one can only hope that a solid group of those folks are rowers.

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Bourbon St., Big Easy
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And if the situation seems too dire at times, remember that New Orleans being New Orleans, of course you can always count on this guy on Bourbon St: Huge Ass Beers To Go.


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