Ron’s Other Resurrection

By Gil LeBreton
Updated: August 30, 2010

ARLINGTON, Tx. — A world away in a hotel room in Baltimore, Ron Washington was chiding his wife, Gerry, for overreacting.

“I remember talking to her on the phone, and she was getting ready to leave town,” Washington said.

“I was telling her, ‘We never run from hurricanes. Why are y’all running?’”

A good third-base coach — and Washington was one of the best during his 11 seasons with the Oakland Athletics — can read the backspin on a line drive into the gap and then, in the time it takes to turn second base, gauge his base runner’s speed against the prowess of the right fielder’s throwing arm.

But on that day in Baltimore — five years ago — Washington, now the Texas Rangers manager, had no idea of the heartbreak and devastation that Hurricane Katrina was about to rain on his hometown of New Orleans.

Gerry Washington, her mother and assorted family members would make it first to Atlanta, then to a Red Cross shelter in Opelika, Ala., to escape the storm.

As they fled, officials of the New Orleans Saints, fearing that the ensuing rains could disrupt a couple of days’ practices, decided to leave early and fly to California to prepare for the team’s preseason game in San Diego.

For Ron Washington, two months would pass before he would climb through a side window at the corner of Dorcester and Perth streets and see his home. The hurricane had sent a rising tide of water up a man-made channel and through a busted levee in the city’s Industrial Canal.

For two weeks, Washington’s Kenilworth Estates neighborhood sat in brackish waters that nearly reached its roofs. A series of oily, saltwater stains marked the floodwaters’ advance up the sides of every home.

When Washington saw his home of 25 years, the brick front bore the painted circle that rescuers had left behind — the zero telling later searchers that there were no dead bodies inside.

“When I saw that,” Washington said, “the one thing I wanted to do was hurry up and get that thing off my house.

“My house was a shamble, but I didn’t want that on it. So I got a power spray gun and cleaned that and those flood lines off.”

Washington was one of the lucky ones, as it turned out.

While other New Orleanians waged daily war with their insurance companies over whether the flood was a man-made catastrophe or an act of God, Washington was reimbursed quickly, hired contractors and got to work.

Now, five years after Katrina, Washington’s restoration efforts are nearly done.

“It’s back up,” the Rangers’ manager proudly reported last week. “I’ve still got two rooms to finish, and I’ve got outside.”

The salty floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain reportedly destroyed 80 percent of the city’s parks and lawns.

“I’m just waiting for my wife to decide — paint or wallpaper?” Washington said.

Almost four years ago, after he had been named Rangers manager, Washington’s New Orleans East subdivision still showed the ravages of the 2005 flood.

There were two large dumpsters parked in front of houses in the next block. A white FEMA-issued trailer sat in the front yard of a neighbor across the street.

The elderly woman who lived across from the Washington family’s driveway fled before the storm, and her damaged home was leveled.

“That lot is totally cleared now,” Washington said. “It’s just a lot.

“The dumpsters are gone, but the houses are still there — nobody living in them.

“The neighborhood is back. But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

In February 2009, Washington’s alma mater, John McDonogh High, inducted him into the school’s hall of fame. The city of New Orleans declared it “Ron Washington Day.”

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels flew in to help honor his manager.

“He took me around,” Daniels recalled, “and he showed me neighborhoods that still looked like an absolute war zone. And then he explained that it looked light years better than what it was.

“And I realized that here is a man who went back and rebuilt in this same community. He can afford to live elsewhere, but he doesn’t want to, because this is where he’s from. This is where his roots are. He felt the right thing to do was go back.”

Washington’s patience and loyalty, Daniels thinks, have served him well as the young Rangers have grown into contention.

But the slow pace of rebuilding his hometown has bothered Washington.

While the city’s Lakeview area blooms with new lawns and rebuilt cottages, construction in New Orleans East has been hit and miss. Restored homes, where some families have lived since the 1970s, sit next to houses that remain abandoned.

In the city’s Lower 9th Ward, new homes have been built through a program initiated by Hollywood’s Brad Pitt. But vacant lots still abound where homes in the Lower 9th were washed away.

The progress is real, though. A photo essay in the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, titled “Then and Now,” revisited the exact locations where hurricane pictures chronicled the devastation five years ago.

A shot of the breached levee at the 17th Street Canal, the proverbial floodgate that caused 80 percent of the city to be underwater, was contrasted with the same angle shot as it looks today — green lawns, flanked by a fortified levee.

Looters in a partially flooded convenience store, contrasted with the same store, open for business today.

As the city proudly trumpets, New Orleans now has more restaurants than it had before the storm.

The most poignant of the Times-Picayune‘s photos, however, shows a before-and-after of the Louisiana Superdome.

In the shot from 2005, a ray of sunlight shines uncomfortably through a hole in the stadium’s roof.

The “after” shot shows the Superdome, repaired and open for business in just 13 months, celebrating the born-again Saints.

Fallen bridges have been rebuilt, barren parks have bloomed back to life and entire neighborhoods now celebrate the city’s ongoing revival. But no story in these five years shook the soul and fabric of New Orleans like its beloved Saints winning the Super Bowl.

Mike Triplett of the Times-Picayune asked one of the three remaining Saints from that 2005 season if the feeling last season would have been as rewarding if the team had moved to, say, San Antonio five years ago.

“Not even close,” offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said.

On his big day back at his high school, Washington talked to the McDonogh students about life and its hardships.

“I talked to them about the importance of not giving up,” he said.

It’s a lesson the people of New Orleans know well.