New Orleans and Saints understand Houston and Texans’ plight with Harvey

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NEW ORLEANS — The Houston Texans and the New Orleans Saints played a preseason game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday night, but the thoughts of many of the observers and participants were on another place or time.

Those affiliated with the Texans were extremely concerned about the state of Houston and surrounding areas as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey, which came ashore near Corpus Christi as a Category 4 storm Friday night, lingered. The area is expected to be battered further with heavy rains for several days as the tropical system hovers inland.

Many of the locals at the game probably were aware that it was exactly 12 years ago that the Saints played another preseason game, one against the Baltimore Ravens that wound up being the final game in the Superdome for 13 months. Barely two days after that game Hurricane Katrina roared ashore and devastated the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, sparing not even the Herculean Superdome.

Houston and New Orleans are connected by a mere five-hour drive and mutual love for football and acceptance of the dangers of living near the Gulf of Mexico in the summer. August is the height of hurricane season and the beginning of football season, inevitably leading to periodic intersections of the two.

The Saints have played teams from Houston — the Texans and the Oilers before they moved to Nashville and became the Titans — in more preseason games (32) than they have faced teams from any other NFL market.

In August people from Houston and New Orleans are as used to watching their football teams face off as they are to keeping a wary eye on the Gulf.

As Katrina bore down on New Orleans, thousands of refugees were welcomed with open arms in Houston, where many first settled in the Astrodome, the former home of the Oilers.

Back in the Crescent City, many who chose to stay or couldn’t leave, sought shelter in the Superdome, which decades earlier surpassed the Astrodome as the premier indoor facility in the NFL when it opened.

The emergence of the state-of-the-art Superdome gave New Orleans a brief, satisfying victory in the ongoing friendly rivalry between the two Gulf Coast metropolises. Fittingly, the first sporting event held in the Superdome was a preseason game between the Saints and the Oilers on Aug. 9, 1975.

But 30 years later, when Katrina’s relentless winds ripped open the roof of the Superdome, it was the antiquated Astrodome that came out of retirement to embrace many who were accustomed to cheering the Saints in the Superdome.

It has been a long and difficult, though ultimately uplifting 12 years since Katrina tore through the Gulf South and left behind unprecedented heartache.

We don’t yet know just how devastating Harvey will prove to be, but our neighbors just across the Sabine River are just beginning to deal with the type of heartache that drove many of us to them 12 years ago.

Any Houston residents who might be forced to cross the Sabine in the other direction and relocate will no doubt find welcome mats laid out in New Orleans.

As for the Texans, they were unable to return to Houston after Saturday’s game and instead were planning to fly to Dallas. They are scheduled to play the Dallas Cowboys in their preseason finale Thursday in Houston, but the Cowboys have offered to host the game if conditions in Houston necessitate a move.

“I want to go home,” Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said. “I hope everything back there is all right with our families and the city itself. It’s very tough. You just keep praying and try to stay cool and not go crazy. We’re trying to get home. Everybody has been saying it all day that we’re trying to get home to our families.”

One couldn’t help but be reminded that the threat from Katrina forced the Saints to leave early for their preseason finale in Oakland on Sept. 1, 2005. They never returned home that season.

After playing the Raiders, New Orleans headed to San Antonio, which became its home away from home for the 2005 regular season. Ironically, San Antonio, like Houston, was being battered Saturday night.

The unscheduled trips to Oakland and San Antonio began a nomadic journey for the Saints, who would go on to play “home” games in East Rutherford, N.J., San Antonio and Baton Rouge that season.

For a while it seemed the Superdome might not be salvageable and the Saints’ stay in San Antonio might become permanent.

Eventually the Saints did return to New Orleans, but not until the 2005 season and the year itself had concluded. They didn’t play in the Superdome again until Sept. 25, 2006.

But once they did return home they were greeted by a community that embraced its football team more warmly than ever before, selling out on season tickets for the first time.

The new beginning included the hiring of a new coach (Sean Payton), the arrival of a new quarterback (Drew Brees) and the influx of stellar free-agent and draft classes. In 2006 the Superdome reopened, better than ever, and the football team it housed was better than ever as New Orleans went to the NFC Championship for the first time.

Three years later the Saints appeared in their first Super Bowl and won it.

For the time being, football in Houston might seem just a little less important than it did a couple of days ago. But gradually, as the first steps to recovery are taken, a renewed appreciation for the sport’s value in binding together a community might well emerge as it did in New Orleans when many of the displaced returned from Houston and countless other temporary homes.

“We’ll adapt. We’ll get through it,” Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said.

As I sit in the press box in the renovated Superdome, I can see the repaired roof and the fancy scoreboards that were added post-Katrina. But the score they display is no more memorable than the one 12 years ago as the ghost of Katrina and the reality of Harvey permeate the building.

“We’re praying that everyone is safe back home,” Texans quarterback Tom Savage said. “We’re really thinking about the people back home more than us.”

Once again the excitement of a football season getting ready to kick off is clashing with the anxiety of a hurricane season that won’t end soon enough.

It’s late August on the Gulf Coast and no one else has a shared understanding of just what that means quite like Houston and New Orleans do.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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