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Zephyrs proud of comeback after Katrina
Triple-A club set to reflect on storm that damaged city, stadium in '05
08/28/2015 10:00 AM ET
The Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs will look back at Hurricane Katrina and how the city rebounded in 2005. (Zephyrs)

Ben's Biz

On April, 6, 2006, the New Orleans Zephyrs opened their season at home against the Round Rock Express and lost, 5-4. This was, quite possibly, the most triumphant moment in the history of the franchise.

On that evening, the Zephyrs became the first New Orleans professional sports team to permanently resume operations in the city after the catastrophic advent of Hurricane Katrina. A sellout crowd of 11,006 fans witnessed the action at Zephyr Field, enjoying an evening of normalcy within a city landscape still devoid of such a thing. The players, when introduced on the field prior to the ballgame, wore navy blue jackets emblazoned with the message "Proud to Call New Orleans Home."  

The Zephyrs, who play in the neighboring New Orleans suburb of Metairie, have long struggled for attention within a market boasting two major sports teams and plentiful entertainment options. But as that 2006 season began they were, quite literally, the only game in town. The NFL's Saints had spent the entirety of the 2005 season on the road, and were not able to resume occupancy of the Superdome until the following September. The NBA's Hornets, meanwhile, became an Oklahoma City entity. The franchise only played three of its 2006-07 season home games at the New Orleans Arena.

The Zephyrs, however, were a different story. The Zephyrs never left.

The Zephyrs are playing a home game on Saturday, Aug. 29 -- the 10th anniversary of the day when Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. When I spoke to general manager Mike Schline on Tuesday, he said that the team was still figuring out just how to commemorate the occasion.

"It's a big topic. What to do on Saturday, how to remember it, and what's appropriate," he said. "There's a fine line between remembering and celebrating. It's a horrific event, but you do want to celebrate the fact that the city came back so strong. A lot of people have mixed emotions on how to recognize the day."

Those mixed emotions are shared by Schline himself, who was in his first season as general manager when Katrina struck. The Zephyrs were in the midst of their final homestand of the season, which consisted of a five-day, seven-game series against the Iowa Cubs.

"It was kind of a strange situation," said Schline, of Katrina's approach toward the city. "Nowadays people start talking about a hurricane seven to 10 days before it gets to you. [Katrina] was supposed to hit Florida. It was not supposed to be our problem. It skipped right over us and went back out to the Gulf. We didn't know about it or talk about it until the 26th, that Friday. I remember our groundskeeper told us about it. The season finale was Sunday, and we had a day-night doubleheader scheduled for Saturday. That was scheduled because we had postponed a game from Hurricane Dennis [in July], which ironically never hit us.

"We played a game that Friday night, and then everything started happening very quickly. On Saturday, everybody was in panic mode. The storm had grown so big."

Within this atmosphere of panic, Schline calls it a "small miracle" that the Zephyrs were able to arrange bus transportation for both teams. The Iowa Cubs made the trip back home to Des Moines, while the Zephyrs traveled to Oklahoma City in advance of their upcoming series against the Redhawks. Schline, himself in need of a ride out of the city, was among the individuals who accompanied the team.

"We bused out at 9:00 to Oklahoma City, got there Sunday afternoon, and braced ourselves. We watched it unfold on TV Monday morning, and the initial thought was that we dodged a bullet," he said. "I remember on Monday I even did an interview, talking about how fortunate New Orleans was and how it could have been so much worse. The next thing you know, an hour later, we heard about the levees breaking.

"In Oklahoma City, after the storm hit, I was dealing with the players," he continued. "They had personal belongings in New Orleans, and I had to explain that we can't get back now -- leave it for another time; the city's underwater."

About 10 days later, the Zephyrs staff returned to the stadium for the first time. The facility, and Metairie in general, was not hit nearly as hard as the worst-affected areas of New Orleans proper. But the ballpark nonetheless received extensive damage; some from the wind, some due to looting that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

In short order, ownership and members of the front office reached the conclusion that Zephyr Field could -- and would -- be ready for Opening Day. A press release to this effect was issued Sept. 21, less than a month after the storm, which announced that the Zephyrs "have every intent on remaining in New Orleans and playing baseball on Opening Day, April 6, 2006, despite the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina."

For a good chunk of the offseason, Schline was among several front-office staffers who, literally, lived at the ballpark. There wasn't much of a choice, really.

"I slept in my office for about a month and a half," he said. "I had a condo at the time, in downtown New Orleans on St. Charles. It had no power. I'd be able to visit during the day, get a pass to go back there to get clothing or whatever was needed. But I was sleeping on the office couch and showering in the clubhouse.

"We immediately got the insurance stuff underway," he continued. "The insurance claim was huge. That was one of the situations then. You couldn't wait to get on it. The people who were able to get back into the city and go after the insurance, they got on it quick."

The Zephyrs front office had plenty of company during this uneasy period of clean-up and assessment. Shortly after Katrina hit, the Zephyr Field stadium parking lot was re-purposed as FEMA offices and a staging area for National Guard rescue missions.

"They got here a day or two after Katrina and then they were here for a month, doing what they needed to do. It was pretty crazy. Tents were up everywhere, portable showers, portable gas tanks to fill up cars, helicopters were always coming and going. It was pretty chaotic," said Schline.

"I believe the National Guard had people staying in the visiting clubhouse. We had worked out a deal where a certain number of people lived there, protecting the area and making sure everything was secure."

Through the chaos, and through the uncertainty, the work got done. The Zephyrs never left; the Zephyrs were there to stay.

"Even on Opening Day [2006], the roof wasn't completely repaired -- there was still some damage," said Schline. "The scoreboard literally got turned on an hour before the game. There was a lot going on, and the [Opening Day] deadline did help. It was awesome, a very unique event. The players were emotional, the crowd was awesome, and beautiful weather.

"To get to that day was a great accomplishment," he added. "Where we came from Aug. 29, a city in ruins, to our stadium on April 6, is something that we were very proud of."

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Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs. Comments