Mark Story

Katrina memories still haunt UK players from New Orleans

Moncell Allen and his family never went back to the Lower Ninth Ward.
Moncell Allen and his family never went back to the Lower Ninth Ward.

When the documentary Witness: Katrina debuted Monday night, Moncell Allen's cell phone blew up.

People assumed the University of Kentucky fullback from New Orleans would not want to miss the TV program consisting of videos shot by "real people" during the hurricane that devastated his hometown.

They were wrong.

"I really didn't want to look at it," Allen says. "It made me too sad."

It was exactly five years ago today — Aug. 29 — when Katrina unleashed nature's fury on New Orleans.

For several UK football players with ties to the city, the anniversary is not necessary to bring Katrina and its aftermath to the forefront. The memory of an event that drives you from the only home you've known or plays a role in the death of a beloved grandmother is always present.

In the days before 8/29/05, Katrina was being projected as a Category 5 storm, meaning sustained winds in excess of 155 mph. Dire warnings were being issued in New Orleans over what a storm of such ferocity would do to a city much of which is located beneath sea level.

Allen says his father's initial reaction was to ride out the storm, just as he and his family had done many times before in their home in the Lower Ninth Ward.

In the West Bank area of New Orleans, staying put was also the plan for the family of Anthony Kendrick.

"Usually, when hurricanes would be headed to New Orleans, they would turn, kind of weaken and wouldn't hit as hard," says the UK tight end. "We had just bought $400 worth of groceries. We thought, 'We're going to stay.'"

Relatives of Kendrick pleaded with the family to leave.

An aunt called from Texas: This one isn't turning. You've got to get out of there.

An uncle called next: This is no joke. I don't want to lose you guys. You need to get out of there.

The pleas got through.

"We immediately packed up all our stuff," Kendrick says. "We thought we would be gone for about three days."

Kendrick, three of his sisters and his mom met up with one of the football player's aunts. Their plan was to drive to Katy, Texas.

In the Allen household, family intervention also turned the tide against riding out the storm.

Says Allen: "My grandmother, my Dad's mom, got the family together and said, 'We're going to leave. No more questions asked.'"

A five-car caravan carried Allen and his extended family west with the intent of making the six-hour trip to Houston.

"It took us two days," Allen says. "We were bumper-to-bumper all the way."

By the time Katrina fully hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, Allen and his family had pooled their rent money and were using it to stay in a motel in Houston.

Kendrick and most of his family were with an aunt in Katy.

Watching on TV what was happening to New Orleans during and after the storm "was kind of shocking," Kendrick says. "The looting, the deaths, the people, the friends and family you know that you can't get in touch with."

Family in the Superdome

Kendrick's parents are divorced. His father and several other relatives tried to weather the storm in the Seventh Ward.

The football player's dad, also named Anthony Kendrick, and his grandmother, Willine Gasper, were among those evacuated to the Superdome.

Normally the home of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, the dome was "the shelter of last resort" during Katrina. By the time things turned dire, there were estimated to be 15,000 to 20,000 people inside.

After the full effects of the storm hit and widespread flooding began, the stadium was left with no electricity, no drinking water and not nearly enough medical supplies.

Kendrick says his dad would later show him video he shot while trapped inside the dome.

"He had a camera," the UK redshirt freshman says. "He would show me pictures of people getting sick and there was no one to help them."

In some ways, what was even worse on the videos was what you could hear.

"There are people screaming in the Superdome, girls screaming and you wonder if they were being raped," Kendrick says. "You hear girls screaming in the background and nobody does anything to help them."

According to a report compiled by the National Hurricane Center, there were 1,836 fatalities attributed to Katrina. Of those, 1,577 were in Louisiana.

While Kendrick's grandmother was inside the Superdome, she fell ill.

"My grandmother was sick during this whole Katrina thing," Kendrick says. "I guess her not being able to get her medical needs (met), her being in the Superdome with all that ruckus, it kind of tore her up. They stayed in the Superdome the whole time until they were moved to Houston. In Houston, they took her to the hospital."

That's where Gasper, 73, died.

"I lost my grandmother," Kendrick says, his voice cracking, "to the storm."

Do you go home?

What those who evacuated New Orleans found when they went home after Katrina varied widely.

The family of UK linebacker Jacob Dufrene owns a lumber company in Larose, La., just outside New Orleans. During the hurricane, the Dufrene clan waited it out in Lafayette, La.

When they came back, "my house wasn't flooded or anything," Dufrene says. "We had to get a whole new roof. The lumber yard roofing, one of the buildings was ripped out."

When Kendrick and his family ventured back to the West Bank, "we didn't have nearly as much flooding as like the Seventh Ward or the Ninth Ward, places like that," he says. "We had about 3 feet of water. Mainly, in our area, there was house damages like windows, fences, roofs."

Allen and his family never went back to see the condition of their home in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Watching TV in Houston, "you could see my house, my grandmother's house, and it looked bad," Allen says. "You could see my high school, it was underwater."

Before Katrina, the population of New Orleans was some 454,863. In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the city had 336,644 residents.

Dufrene and his family were among those who stayed.

For some six weeks after the school year should have begun for Dufrene at the John Curtis Christian High School, no classes were held.

In the meantime, Dufrene invited one of his high school teammates to move in with him to get him out of a FEMA trailer where his family of five was living.

Another teammate found his family of four living in a one-bedroom apartment. Dufrene and his family allowed him to stay with them, too.

By the time school finally started, the decision was made to have a football season. For its first game, a John Curtis Christian team that was used to having "80 or 90 guys" had "about 22," Dufrene says.

Didn't matter. "We were just happy to see each other and be together again," the UK senior linebacker says.

The post-Katrina dispersal to new homes of former New Orleans residents includes the immediate families of Allen and Kendrick.

After the rent money ran out in Houston, Allen says there was another family conference. The decision was made that each family unit would go its own way, not all try to stay together.

A connection in North Carolina took Allen, his parents and his sister to Charlotte. There, both a church and a family became the Allens' sponsors, helping Moncell get into a private high school and his parents find jobs.

The family is still in Charlotte.

Kendrick says his mom, Deborah Lowe, soon determined that her family would be better off not returning to New Orleans. Lowe, a registered nurse, found a job in Texas.

After five years, the pull of New Orleans remains strong.

"Of course I miss New Orleans," Allen says. "The food. My friends. I talk about it all the time."

Says Kendrick: "I miss everything about it. I've got old friends there. Places. Just the sight of it. I guess I just miss being at home."

During one of the three times he's visited the Big Easy since he left, Allen says he was shown a "Katrina book" that featured pictures of people who had been killed in the storm.

"There were like five people that I grew up with that were in that book," he says.

Five years later, Moncell Allen did not need to watch an anniversary documentary to feel to his core the impact Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans.