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New Orleans: A tale of 2 cities since Katrina

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New Orleans: A tale of 2 cities since Katrina

NEW ORLEANS (AP) While a blimp hovers not too far in the distance, circling over tens of thousands of Super Bowl revelers, Christopher Weaver looks around at the neighborhood where he was born and raised and almost died.

He loves this place, probably more now than he did back in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina tried to wash it all away.

But it's not much to look at, that's for sure.

``You can see it for yourself,'' Weaver moaned to a reporter, staring Friday at all the vacant lots, overrun with weeds that are taller than he is, at all the abandoned shells of former homes, many of them still marked with the spray-painted ``X'' that became the grim symbol of a great American city nearly wiped off the map.

``I'm going to be honest with you,'' he went on. ``It sucks here. Just look across the street. Nothing. Look over there. Nothing.''

In many ways, New Orleans has come back stronger than ever since Katrina. The restaurant scene is thriving. The hotels are packed. The Superdome has received a glamorous makeover. The French Quarter rocks into the wee hours night after night.

But, as the Big Easy prepares to host the party-slash-national holiday it does like no other, Super Bowl Sunday, it's worth remembering that life has not yet returned to normal for everyone here.

Not even close.

``It's like a tale of two cities,'' said Mike Miller, who works with the homeless group Unity of Greater New Orleans. ``It's hard to believe that seven years later, it still looks like this.''

Just a short ride from the French Quarter, in historic neighborhoods such as Treme and the Ninth Ward, it's not hard to find a virtual time capsule from the days when Katrina roared ashore. On block after block, there are structures that look pretty much the same as they did after the water receded.

There are the telltale markings that show just how high it climbed when the levees cracked - 3 feet on this crumbling house, 5 feet on those remains of a shopping mall, 7 feet on that ghostly apartment complex. Those Xs still mark the date many of them were searched, who did the searching and how many bodies, if any, were found inside.

Where kids once played and neighbors used to hang out together, now all that remains could easily pass for a former war zone.

``It's just hard to believe that every abandoned house, every abandoned apartment, represents a family that never came back,'' Miller said, shaking his head.

Even after all these years, it all looks so familiar to anyone who remembers those horrific images of people clinging to rooftops and huddled on bridges, waiting desperately for help to arrive.

``You can still see,'' said Travers Kurr, also with Unity of Greater New Orleans, pointing toward the roof of a boarded-up house, ``where people busted out of their attics so they could be rescued.''

Weaver was one of those who barely got out alive.

When Katrina struck, he was looking out a window toward the levee about a block away, the one that was supposed to keep him safe. Instead, he watched it tear apart right before his eyes - and the water come rushing through.

He tried to escape the conventional way, but the pressure from winds howling at well over 100 mph prevented him from opening the door. He busted a window and climbed out, only to get pinned against the wall of his house by the rapidly rising waters. Finally, he went under, sure he was going to die. He held his breath and remembered what his grandmother told him, to always pray to God to forgive his sins.

``Suddenly, something shot me away from that house,'' Weaver said, convinced beyond any doubt that he's still alive today only because of a higher power.

A neighbor pulled him to safety using a strand of Christmas lights. After 2 1/2 days on a rooftop, they were finally rescued. Weaver still has a nasty scar of his right leg from a cut he got while being tossed about in the turbulent waters.

Despite the unthinkable carnage in the Lower Ninth Ward, Weaver never had any doubt he would return and rebuild, even if it's now clear that so many of his former neighbors and fellow survivors won't be following his lead.

``I was born and raised right here,'' he said. ``If Katrina comes back again, I'm still not leaving.''

Miller estimates there are more than 10,000 - and maybe as many as 15,000 - abandoned structures in the New Orleans metro area. Many of them have been commandeered by the city's large homeless population, who slip away in the light of day but leave behind evidence of their existence - dirty clothes scattered about, a bedroll where they slept, empty cans and plastic foam containers from what passed for a meal.

As he drives around the areas that won't be found in any tourism brochures, another member of his team, New Orleans native Clarence White, rattles off what used to be here, what used to be there.

``That was a popular bar room over there,'' White said, turning to his left. ``There used to be a drug store over there,'' he said, shifting his gaze to the right.

The NFL, as it now does in all Super Bowl cities, has set aside Saturday as a day of service, in which volunteers will take part in the renovation of five local playgrounds and their surrounding communities. That gesture will surely be more poignant in New Orleans than any other place where the championship game is held.

But Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, a native of nearby St. Rose, is keenly aware that it will take far more than a few hours to get this city - this entire city - back on its feet.

``When I get home, I drive around the city, go to some of my old spots, just hang out with people,'' he said. ``You see the city is rebuilding, but we've still got a long way to go. It's just different, man. You have so many people that were lost. The spirit was kind of broken for a second. But New Orleans people, we've been through a lot. We love our city, man. We love to have a good time. We love for people to come have a great time with us.''

Even amid the lingering devastation, there are hopeful signs of progress. In the Lower Ninth Ward, for instance, construction workers were on the scene Friday at several odd-shaped, energy-efficient homes going up with funding from a group led by actor Brad Pitt.

``I appreciate everything he's doing,'' Weaver said, though he quickly added that the remnants of Katrina are far, far more prevalent in this part of New Orleans.

Through all the hardship, Weaver doesn't seem the least bit bitter about his plight. He's proud the Super Bowl has returned to his hometown for the first time since Katrina, and he'll be pulling hard for the Ravens to beat the San Francisco 49ers. This being New Orleans, the occasion will be marked with adult beverages and plenty of food - gumbo, red beans and rice, a big pot of crawfish.

But, for all those Super Bowl revelers who might think everything has returned to normal in the Big Easy, Weaver has this message:

``Come on over here where I'm at.''

It's not far away at all.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/super-bowl-watch andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Ravens' Benjamin Watson named finalist for Walter Payton Man of the Year

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USA Today Sports

Ravens' Benjamin Watson named finalist for Walter Payton Man of the Year

Ravens' tight end Benjamin Watson is among three finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award which "recognizes an NFL player for his excellence on and off the field."

The 14-year veteran is being recognized for his One More Foundation, which Watson and his wife Kirsten created in 2008. According to their website, the foundations purpose is "devoted to spreading the love and hope of Christ to One More soul by meeting real needs, promoting education and providing enrichment opportunities through charitable initiatives and partnerships." This is the second time in Watson's career he has been nominated. 

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In addition to this nomination, Watson was awarded the 2017 Bart Starr Award which is given annually to a NFL player who "best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field, and in the community." 

Some of Watson's charitable efforts through the One More Foundation include participating in #MyClauseMyCleasts to bring awareness to human sex trafficking, playing secret Santa to 25 families from Building Families for Children and partnering with the New Orleans Family Justice Center- where he used to play- helping survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is a finalist for his Receptions for Research Foundation which focuses on cancer research and programming. Olsen and his wife Kara also started the HEARTest Yard Fund, a family service program that "provides families of babies affected by congenital heart disease with services including in-home, private nursing care, physical therapy and speech therapy, all at no cost to the families or hospital."

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Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is a finalist for the $37 million he raised for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in addition to his already established Justin J. Watt Foundation

The winner will be announced at NFL Honors airing February 3rd at 9 p.m ET on NBC. 

The winner will receive a $500,000 donation with $250,000 of it going to their foundation of choice and the other $250,000 going in his name to help expand Character Playbook nationwide.

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

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AP Images

Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Don Martindale wondered if he would ever get a second chance to be an NFL defensive coordinator after his one-and-done disaster with the Denver Broncos in 2010.

The Broncos went 4-12 that season and gave up more points (29.4 per game) and yards (390.8) than any team in the league. Those miserable numbers, not surprisingly, cost Martindale his job.

He latched on with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 as linebackers coach. After working diligently with several stars, including Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, the 54-year-old Martindale last week was promoted to defensive coordinator.

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To say he's pleased to be in charge of an NFL defense again would be a profound understatement.

"Without a doubt," Martindale said Thursday. "My family knows it. Everybody knows it. My players know it. I can't wait."

His performance in Denver eight years ago is hardly worth putting on a resume, but Martindale believes it was a worthwhile experience.

"Even though the stats were what they were, I was really proud with how we played," he said. "I'm glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It's like I tell my guys: You either win or you learn."

Martindale's new job with the Ravens carries the responsibility of overseeing a unit that has long been among the best in the NFL, thriving under notable leaders such as Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano and Dean Pees, who retired on Jan. 1.

"I've been preparing for this job all my life," Martindale said. "It's very humbling, but I understand the pressure and I look forward to the challenge."

Martindale takes over a defense that this season ranked 12th in net yards allowed, first in takeaways (34) and sixth in fewest points allowed (18.9). He has no plans to revamp the unit or change the philosophy, especially since head coach John Harbaugh stressed the need to retain continuity before launching his search for Pees' replacement.

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Martindale will, however, put his own stamp on the unit.

"I think personality-wise, and just calls, there's going to be some things that are the same. And then there are going to be sometimes where I'm going to pressure more," Martindale said. "I just think I have a more aggressive personality in calling the game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That's some of the things I've learned from the past."

His most daunting task will be finding a way to make the defense to come up big late in the game. In 2016, a fourth-quarter collapse in Pittsburgh cost Baltimore a playoff berth. This season, a fourth-down touchdown pass in the final minute by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton bounced the Ravens from the postseason chase.

"Our mantra has always been to finish," Martindale said. "We're close. Obviously, the last two years, it's been the last play that's knocked us out of it. We are going to work diligently -- all of us -- with our package and situational football.

"That's going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us. That's the big thing that I see. We were really good. Let's make it great."