Five years later, the memory of those faces of frustration and hope surface again.
Are we really that long past Katrina and the flood?
The scars are now pretty much covered — actually vanished in this area. You wonder if most of the wounds are healed.
Several of the evacuated victims of Katrina were housed in Conway.
For the Bears’ football game a couple weeks afterward, the victims the University of Central Arkansas guests at for a game against Southern Arkansas. Vance Strange, UCA athletic director at the time, and his staff worked with community leaders to give those who had been through so much a little taste of normalcy and an evening of fun — a break from being disenfranchised and memories of horrific scenes in New Orleans.
In the section reserved for the special guests, there was a lot of purple — LSU purple. It’s interesting that those who escaped with their shirts on their backs were shirts representing LSU and the New Orleans Saints.
UCA had several players from Lousiana on its roster. A week before that home game, a couple of them faced the realities of life as they tried to get news of their families while traveling to a game with Tennessee-Martin. It was a trip that had constant reminders of the tragedy and dozens of National Guard trucks and vehicles headed in line down the interstates toward New Orleans.
Safety Cory Cangelosi and lineman Ryan Robelot had their family homes flooded and damaged. Cangelosi was from Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Ponchertrain, one of the areas that took on major flooding. Robelot was from Jefferson Parish, which took most of the flooding aside from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
"This is a reality check," Cangelosi said while on the way to Martin, Tenn.
"You think you had a hard day of practice, then you see people swimming for their lives in rising water or people on roofs of houses waving to be rescued. It sort of put things in perspective," Robelot said.
While on the Martin trip, Robelot spent part of his time trying get information on members of his family, who were evacuated, then one member was allowed to go to their residences for a short time to assess damages. There was confusion everywhere. Cangelosi’s family was evacuated to Baton Rouge.
And there were all kinds of stories from those gathered in the stands at Estes Stadium a week later.
Friday, as I reviewed reports of that game, it strangely seemed like it all happened last week or last month. I can’t forget those expressions on the faces of those folks, some of whom had been at the Superdome or Convention Center and had been through stuff too horrible to describe. I remember the expressions of gratefulness to so many in Conway who had planned diligently and worked hard to make them feel welcome.
Here is how I reported the scene in a 2005 column after talking to some of at the game:
"The University of Central Arkansas gained about 340 new fans Saturday night.
"Curtis Johnson of New Orleans leaned against a fence near the end of the Bears’ 31-7 victory over Southern Arkansas and said, ‘Man, I loved this. It was good to see some football. It has been many years since I’ve seen a football game. If they have another one, I’ll be back.’"
"About 340 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, relocated to the Conway Sports Center, attended the game as guests of the UCA Athletic Department.
"They tailgated with the Bear fans and were given caps, T-shirts, foam bear claws and they got into cheering the local team on.
UCA even wore a favored Louisiana color — purple.
"As some older youngsters held babies on their shoulders in a section of Estes Stadium, several fans spelled out UCA with their arms to the cadence of the cheerleaders. They cheered the big plays, groaned at the mistakes.
"Mainly, they were able to get out on a fine September evening and relax and have fun.
"‘When my people see me again I’m gonna be a fat boy I’m eating so much,’ said Ruhan Brown of New Orleans. ‘They are feeding us great, three meals a day. No kind of complaints. Everybody is happy.’
"Robert McGhee of New Orleans, who said he was a sanitation worker there, reclined in a special sideline area as he waited to board a bus.
"‘I miss New Orleans," he said. "I miss my job. I’d like to go back.’"
Not everyone is as excited.
"‘I miss the food there, but not much else," said Danielle Sheppard of New Orleans. "‘We enjoyed this. It was great to get out and have some fun.’"
Several of the local fans acknowledged the group as they excited the stadium, asking if they were OK and if their needs were being met.
"One worker and one of the evacuees hugged each other as he boarded a van.
Several youngsters were seen walking to their rides, jumping about, carrying T-shirts and waving foam bear fingers.
"There were laughs and smiles and things were fun again.
"‘The school really put this together well," said Vance Strange, UCA athletic director. "‘They had the paraphernalia. Maybe we made some Bear fans.’"
Katrina did $130 billion in damages. About 1,800 died as a result of the storm. Those in Conway that evening were among at least one million who were displaced.
Before Katrina, the population of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans was reported about 18,000. Officials estimate 1,800 people live there now.
But there has been recovery and many of those horrific gashes in people’s homes, their lives and their pysche have been at least partially healed or replaced. Many people still have community.
I was reminded of the final words Robelot said to me, "You can replace possessions; you can’t replace people."
You also can’t blot out all those memories.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com)