Straight From the Source: Ida is deja vu for ex-Saints exec from Libertyville who fled Katrina

  • Conrad "Connie" Kowal of Libertyville lived in suburban New Orleans in 2005 while working as the marketing director for the Saints football team. He managed to evacuate safely before Katrina barreled through the city.

    Conrad "Connie" Kowal of Libertyville lived in suburban New Orleans in 2005 while working as the marketing director for the Saints football team. He managed to evacuate safely before Katrina barreled through the city.

 
By Conrad “Connie” Kowal
Straight From the Source
Updated 9/1/2021 8:30 AM
Editor's note: Conrad “Connie” Kowal of Libertyville, lived in suburban New Orleans in 2005 while working as the marketing director for the Saints football team. He managed to evacuate safely a day after the Saints final preseason game and before Katrina barreled through the city.

At 7 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, I was in a Hilton hotel room in Houston, having evacuated my home in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner at midnight Saturday in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast.

I turned on "The Today Show" to see Brian Williams reporting from inside the Superdome where three days earlier the New Orleans Saints, who I worked for at the time, had played a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. Williams was reporting the roof of the Superdome was being ripped open by Katrina, water pouring in, people scared, and that Katrina was going to be bad.

 

I, like the rest of the world, watched in disbelief.

The video and reports from inside the Superdome and stories of the people who had to use a place of celebration -- and my place of business -- as a last resort for protection from Katrina were heartbreaking and surreal.

Sixteen years later -- to the hour -- I turn on the TV in my Libertyville home to watch The Weather Channel as a Category 4 hurricane named Ida headed straight toward New Orleans. Like the rest of the world, I am watching.

It's both ironic and eerie. The 16th remembrance of Katrina brought plenty of flashbacks that are as clear today as ever.

In 2005 I lived in New Orleans and was in my third season with the Saints as their senior director of marketing. The Superdome was our home field.

As a lifelong resident of the Chicago suburbs and a recent transplant in the Gulf South, I was warned each year that I should be prepared to head out of town for a few days in the event a hurricane should come toward New Orleans, since Hurricane Season is basically June 1 to Thanksgiving.

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During the week of Aug. 22, 2005, people in New Orleans had their eye on a tropical storm, a potential hurricane developing in the Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless, our Saints' final preseason home game on Friday, Aug. 26, took place at a packed Superdome against the Ravens with no worries, no problems.

But things changed fast.

Just as Ida would 16 years later, Katrina quickly developed into a dangerous hurricane.

The next morning, Mayor Ray Nagin was on a televised press conference saying Katrina was the real deal and people should evacuate. The Saints organization advised its employees to evacuate.

I met with my marketing staff to learn of their evacuation destinations, and we double-checked each other's cellphone numbers -- fully expecting to reunite in three days.

It wasn't until after that meeting I learned what it takes to prepare to evacuate.

My wife, Sally, back in Libertyville, made hotel reservations in Houston, which would be far enough west of New Orleans to miss the worst of it and only a 3-hour drive on Interstate 10. Next, grab clothes and the basic necessities for a short-term trip. Fill up the tank, which took a long time because everyone else had the same idea.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The ATMs were running out of cash, too, but I finally got some at the fifth I visited.

I also had to prep the house for potential water damage, moving things off the floor onto high shelves.

I had to decide which valuables and precious keepsakes to take with me -- and which to leave behind.

Experienced hurricane evacuees know to put plywood over the windows, but I didn't have time to do so on my first-floor townhouse.

Since thousands of people were evacuating during the day, and the lines of cars on the city roads, back roads and Interstate 10 were backed up for miles, I decided to leave at midnight.

As I did, I looked in the rearview hoping things would be OK when I returned.

But the hurricane evacuation period for Katrina was not your standard three-day drill.

As the world witnessed, it became a much longer thing and life-changing for thousands.

For the Saints organization, it meant relocating our entire operation to San Antonio, Texas, for the 2005 NFL season.

I was one of the lucky ones.

I made a quick one-day visit to New Orleans 10 days after the hurricane and found a couple of inches of water in my townhouse, swollen floors, warped doors and soggy carpeting. The power was still off.

There were hundreds of thousands of people worse off than I was.

I think often about the people of New Orleans and the Gulf South region and the many friends I made while living down there. Mother Nature has always played a big role in that part of the country.

May the good Lord watch over those whose lives will be forever changed because of Hurricane Ida.

Keep them in your thoughts. If you pray, say a prayer. Find ways to give, find ways to help.

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