Collier: Playing up a storm has a new meaning

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With the Steelers trying to focus on an especially meaningless preseason game at Carolina, Ike Taylor wandered into the cafeteria to find the 19-inch television near the ceiling flashing images too painful watch.

No, not yesterday.

That was two years ago today, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Taylor's home in Gretna, La., just a short walk across the Jackson Avenue Bridge where it fords the Mississippi at doomed New Orleans' southern flank.

"I remember we were in here," Taylor remembered at lunchtime yesterday. "And I really couldn't watch it. After that ... well, I still can't watch it."

The fifth-year cornerback said he's heard about Spike Lee's documentary, "When The Levees Broke," itself now a year old and nominated for six Emmys, but he hasn't seen it, probably because if you can't watch the largely antiseptic news images, you might not be ready for the aching devastation of Lee's cinematic requiem.

Though Taylor's mom and his sisters weren't in New Orleans that day and his large extended family somehow managed to sidestep a meteorological freight train that killed more than 1,800 people and displaced half the population of the city, his view of the catastrophe remains largely informed by borrowed inspiration.

"The kids at my football camp," he said, "just looking at them and understanding their situation and their spirit, I thought, 'Man these are some strong-minded kids. Kids that had to grow up fast.'

"They inspire me."

Taylor held his annual camp June 29 in Gretna, at a former elementary school that now houses grades 3 through 12, such was the storm's impact on that area's school-age population. If the pace of these first two years of redevelopment in the Gulf Coast area are what its residents can expect going forward, most of those third-graders will be rebuilding New Orleans as adults, should they hang around.

Journalists and advocates for Katrina victims looking into the practical applications of the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act have been finding that legislation ostensibly designed to help rebuild New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., has had the effect of inviting developers to use the tax breaks to instead build luxury condos as far from Katrina's path as Tuscaloosa, Ala. Funny how the so-called GoZone initiative has tax breaks for wealthy developers that reportedly allow a $155,000 write-off on a $300,000 condo in the first year.

In Lee's documentary, it's hard to tell who gets savaged worst in the wrenching testimony of New Orleans' broken residents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the insurance industry, the Bush Administration, and local and regional politicians all get a lashing, most of it well-earned.

"I've seen a lot of it, but not all the way through," said Alan Faneca, the New Orleans native who remembers waiting days to hear from his father. "I've heard a lot of people say, or if not a lot some people, say that it's a lot more negative than it needs to be, but I think it covers it pretty well, especially from a personal point of view."

Our broader point of view, emblematic of a nation pretty much without any attention span left, is simplistically that if the Saints are thriving and Bourbon Street is open, New Orleans must be on its way back. Taylor won' tell you it's not, only that the suffering didn't exactly evaporate just because the Saints picked a good year to reach the NFC Championship Game.

"It's still tough," Taylor said. "Other than downtown and the airport area, it's still pretty gloomy. I've got uncles, cousins, aunts; I've got friends all over and I've seen every part of it. It's very tough. Sometimes, I don't see how they do it. Just to see the city like that, it hurts.

"You see so many storms growing up that, after awhile, you don't worry about it anymore. New Orleans is below sea level, so you always heard something bad was going to happen eventually."

Eventually arrived two years ago today. As the Steelers prepare for another especially meaningless exhibition at Carolina, a few native Louisianans -- Taylor, Faneca, Ryan Clark -- and a few others might wonder, with the Iraq war sucking something like $9 billion a month from America's pocket, why significant parts of New Orleans look like a photo taken closer to that day than this.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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