Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters flew overhead, rocking the Athletic Administration Building and kicking up dirt in the Bernie Moore Track Stadium as it became a makeshift helipad.
A fire truck was parked inside the stadium to hose down dirt as victims were rushed out of the choppers via stretchers. Those in helicopters and others in ambulances headed for the PMAC — a massive triage facility, the largest in U.S. history.
With police and military members blocking off North Stadium Drive, buses continuously brought residents from areas southeast of Baton Rouge to the Carl Maddox Field House, used as an overcrowded safe haven.
Hundreds of LSU’s finest, including student-athletes, coaches and LSU athletic department staffers, answered the call of duty — a showing of compassion in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Life under the stately oaks was never more uncertain than it was in the late summer of 2005.
At times, especially after Hurricane Rita rolled through the region less than a month after its predecessor, the chaos seemed endless.
For weeks, LSU wasn’t a breeding ground for education and athleticism. It was a place of loss and survival. It was a place of desperation and hope. It was a place of fear and courage. It was a place for Louisianians, facilitated by its flagship university.
“I’ve always told people,” said former LSU associate sports information director Bill Martin, “that day, LSU became the model for how to respond in a disaster, from a campus standpoint. Everything that was done — from facilities, to students, student-athletes, doctors, people — it was total all hands on deck.”
Not in the ‘playbook’
The first year of the Les Miles football era was on the cusp in Baton Rouge, but the athletic department already was preparing for something far more severe.
Two days before Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, current associate athletic director and SID Michael Bonnette, who was an assistant athletic director and SID at the time, sent out a news release, which canceled the popular Taste of Tiger Tailgating event held in the field house.
LSU planned to use the field house as a special needs center, but daily operations continued in advance of the Tigers’ season opener against North Texas on Sept. 3.
As Katrina and the levee breach wreaked havoc in New Orleans, Martin, who was a sports information department student intern then, printed game notes on Aug. 30 for a game scheduled four days away.
But the situation in New Orleans and the surrounding areas was worsening.
That same Tuesday, LSU decided to postpone the opener and eventually moved the game to a coincidental open date for the Mean Green in late October.
The PMAC and field house were appointed refugee hubs prior to the storm, but the facilities were not prepared for the sheer volume of people about to arrive.
For the first few days, Director of Athletic Training Jack Marucci and the LSU training staff were some of the only medical professionals on site to assist refugees.
When helicopters touched down and ambulances raced to campus, LSU needed everything it could get its hands on.
Wal-Mart sent more than 1,000 beds, mattresses and cots to the facilities, as they struggled to the support the number of people coming in. Civilians brought towels, blankets, pillows, bandages, gauze and iodine.
“The [LSU] Hurricane Center [said], ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to —’ But you just didn’t figure on the levees breaking and 150,000 homes or 75 to 80 percent of the homes [in New Orleans] being flooded up to the roof, with the Coast Guard picking people off the roof. That wasn’t in your playbook,” said former LSU Athletic Director Skip Bertman.
A message forwarded
Martin stuck around on Aug. 30 for more than eight hours in the refugee area, witnessing the worst of a grim situation. He returned to his apartment in the early morning on Aug. 31. With no cell phone service, he wrote an email, updating those of the situation at LSU. Martin said it was sent to seven or eight people he worked with in the sports information department.
Little did Martin know, the candid email would be read by thousands, as the first-person account was passed around the web.
“I never intended for that to happen,” Martin said. “If it served a purpose of, ‘Hey, this is the dire circumstances here’ and what the people are going through to our east, you know what, maybe that gives people cause to donate right to Red Cross or do something.”
Martin’s email showed his foresight. He knew he had played a roll in something “more gratifying and more surreal” than anything else he would be a part of in his life.
In the email, he detailed hauling supplies with athletes and taking direction from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention representatives.
He described hurrying, along with Bonnette, to help a fallen elderly woman get back in her wheelchair.
He told of witnessing people die in front of him from wounds too critical to treat.
He wrote about simply talking to refugees in the PMAC, giving them comfort when they had no one else to turn to. At least one person he talked to didn’t make it through the night.
Martin noted mothers in labor in locker rooms and when the auxiliary gym was converted into a morgue.
The email reads more like a nightmare, but it was reality.
These were people he may have just seen on television, but now they were suffering in front his eyes.
Responses to the email came flowing in. He hadn’t sent the email to his mother, who led the music department at McNeese State, but it reached her via her boss. It also reached Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, prompting Reilly to come to LSU.
After getting his own picture of the campus, Reilly wrote a column, explaining how sports was meaningless yet essential for Louisiana at that time. He wrote the altered LSU football schedule didn’t matter, but the athletic facilities, student-athletes, coaches and athletic department members did.
“We were all different races, all different types of people and all different backgrounds,” Martin said. “But we were all there as one. ... You walk away from there, and you feel proud to be a part of helping people in a very desperate time of need.”
Miles had yet to roam the sidelines of Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, but he already was facing the most adversity he’d ever seen as a collegiate coach.
He said he was unprepared for a hurricane season in southern Louisiana, especially the two in 2005. The coach calls Elyria, Ohio, home, and he was surprised he needed to fuel his car prior to the storm.
“I anticipated that this must be the way summer always is here,” Miles said at a recent news conference.
Miles saw the exhaustion on the faces of players like senior wide receiver Skyler Green, a Westwego, Louisiana, native, as Green would commute from practice to his dorm room filled with evacuated family members.
Miles’ players weren’t sleeping, but they were helping and making donations. Miles did, too.
Though it was far from the most important part, football practices became difficult with the deafening sounds of helicopter propellers and ambulance sirens blaring throughout the day.
Miles walked through the PMAC every night after coaches’ meetings were over. Miles — like then-men’s basketball coach John Brady and many other coaches — was there to lend a hand or raise the spirits of so many feeling hopeless.
Miles described how special it was to see so many people with the name tag ‘volunteer.’ Athletes such as then-sophomore basketball star Glen “Big Baby” Davis was there almost everyday, at one point holding up bags of fluid and blood as medical professionals treated patients.
Bertman said Miles won’t take any credit for his efforts, but he considers them to be heroic. Martin agreed.
“For him to have to face that situation, and it’s days before his first game, which all of a sudden didn’t happen and football is irrelevant,” Martin said. “Him being there is one of the finest examples of leadership I’ve ever seen.”
The great distraction
Eventually, campus began to stabilize.
School resumed on Sept. 6, and more doctors arrived to the triage center.
Even then-President George W. Bush showed up after touring New Orleans, and LSU was forced to cut a hole in the fence around the PMAC to make his walk shorter.
The football team, too, was ready to begin its season, but the campus wasn’t in condition to do so. Tempe, Arizona, became the site of LSU’s first home game against Arizona State.
The Sun Devils paid to fly the Tigers out and presented a million dollar check to the program. With some evacuees seeking shelter in Arizona, the school was more than accommodating on short notice.
“Those people in Tempe, I can’t praise them enough for the way they welcomed us into that town and into that stadium,” said LSU public address announcer Dan Borné. “On just a few days notice, they prepared for a game that they weren’t planning to play. They literally gave us a home game in their stadium.”
Les Miles’ message to the team: Win this one for the folks back home.
The Tigers fell behind, 17-7, through three quarters. Early in the fourth quarter, the Sun Devils looked to go up by 13 on a field goal attempt. But LSU senior defensive tackle Claude Wroten blocked the kick and shifted the momentum of the game, as senior cornerback Mario Stevenson returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
The Tigers returned a blocked punt for a touchdown on the next possession and traded scores with the Sun Devils before LSU sophomore quarterback JaMarcus Russell connected with sophomore wide receiver Early Doucet on fourth-and-10 from the 39-yard line for the game-winning touchdown with a little more than a minute remaining.
The emotion of overcoming a hellish two weeks for the team to win dramatically stands out to Borné.
“I had left the press box with about five minutes left in the game,” Borné said. “I went down there to stand in the corner of that end zone, and that touchdown was probably 25 feet from where I was standing. It was the most incredible rush of adrenaline that I’ve ever had.”
While the feeling of victory in the season opener may have been sweet, LSU still hadn’t played in front of its fans who desperately needed a distraction.
Displaced fans welcomed the Tigers home on Sept. 24 against No. 10 Tennessee.
Then, Rita hit the region and threw off LSU’s attempt at balance again.
Rita pushed the home opener against the Vols to Monday night, a first in the history of LSU football. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer agreed to play the game and fly back to Knoxville the same night, given the lack of hotel space in Baton Rouge.
The day of the game, school was canceled. The stadium was filled, buzzing with energy and craving a release.
Fans may not have known what their future held, but on that night, it was about LSU football. Former senior associate athletic director Herb Vincent penned a message to the fans for Borné to read before the game.
As Borné delivered it, four student-athletes from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama walked onto the field with their state flags.
“It was three or four weeks of pent up frustration, sadness, fear and angst,” Vincent said. “Coming into Tiger Stadium and cheering for your team and being able to release that with fellow Louisianians who had gone through the same thing, it was probably the first time they could cheer.”
Riding the crowd’s emotional wave, LSU jumped out to 21-point first half lead. By the fourth quarter, the Tigers had run out of juice, surrendering the lead and falling in overtime, 30-27.
The final score was hardly relevant to Borné, who considers it to be the most memorable game in almost 30 years as an announcer.
“In that stadium, you had people who lost just about everything in their lives,” Borné said. “You had people in evacuation centers, who somehow or another found a way to get to the game. You had people, who didn’t know what the future held to them, pick up and get to Baton Rouge and come and see their Tigers play. There were no rich people or poor people in that stadium.
“Every single person in that stadium was there because they shared a common grief and common compassion for everyone who had been so involved in the misery of these storms. ... We lost the game, but we scored a great victory for Louisiana.”
LSU played for the next nine weeks, getting special permission from the NCAA to do so to make up for lost time. They finished the regular season 10-1, matching up with Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship game. The physically worn down Tigers couldn’t keep up with the talented Bulldogs, losing, 34-14.
Weeks later, the Tigers were finally rested, punishing Miami, 40-3, in a return trip to the Georgia Dome for the Peach Bowl. Bertman said LSU could have gone 13-0 if not for all the team went through that season.
But the story, Bertman said, wasn’t how a rocky season finished on a high note. It was the time and effort given by the LSU community.
For Vincent, the “LSU spirit” was shown through student- athletes.
“The resiliency of all the student-athletes was probably the most amazing part of all this,” Vincent said, “because so many of them had friends and relatives from New Orleans or came from the Gulf Coast or came from Biloxi or wherever. ... It was an incredible show of [the LSU spirit] of these young people stepping up during something that no one had ever seen before.”