Inspiration rises from the ruins

March 17, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN REPORTER

The necessities included steel-toed boots, hard hat, surgeon-style masks and sledgehammer. The five University of Maryland, Baltimore County women provided their own muscle.

One year ago this month, the four basketball players and one track team member tackled the dirty and dangerous job of gutting homes in one of New Orleans' most devastated communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Inspired by Morgan Hatten's vision to help in the Katrina cleanup, fellow basketball players Amanda Robinson, Stacy Hunt and Kristin Drabyn, along with shot-putter Quiteelia "Toni" Boyd, joined Hatten for an 18-hour drive during UMBC's spring break in 2006.

Living for a week in a sea of tents set up by Habitat for Humanity, they spent eight hours a day tearing down drywall, ripping up floors and shoveling muck from abandoned homes in St. Bernard Parish. At night, they'd retreat to the Habitat bivouac and watch NCAA tournament basketball games that were projected onto the side of their tent.

This year, the four members of the basketball team will be playing in the NCAA tournament.

When the UMBC women upset Hartford in the America East Conference championship game Sunday to earn the school's first berth in an NCAA Division I basketball tournament, it represented the perfect juxtaposition to their week of labor in New Orleans. It also showed how far the program has come after finishing 4-24 three years ago.

"This year we're getting all the attention in the world because of this," said Hatten, a junior guard from Potomac. "It's really cool. But at the same time, last year was equally cool to go down there and be able to do that.

"It's polar opposites. Instead of us watching it, people are actually going to watch us."

There will, however, be one striking similarity between the reclamation project and the basketball tournament. When the Retrievers (16-16) make their NCAA debut tomorrow night about 9:30 on ESPN2, it will be as a 16th seed being fed to No. 1 seed and perennial women's power University of Connecticut (29-3) in the Huskies' backyard at the Hartford Civic Center.

That means there's more hard work to be done.

But that's just basketball, and it's nothing compared to what they found in New Orleans seven months after Katrina pounded the Gulf shore and inundated the city with death and destruction.

Robinson, a 6-foot-3 junior center from Patuxent High and Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament, was hit hardest by what she found during a trip to the Ninth Ward.

"We saw the spot where they were fixing the levees," she said. "There were cars on top of houses, houses on top of cars. The bus driver said at that time, they were still finding bodies, and it was [seven] months later."

The UMBC women did demolition work as part of a 12-member team. They saw no bodies but found a dead cat, ruined furniture, water-soaked family albums, trashed children's toys and an undeniable sense of spirit.

Drabyn, a junior guard, told of a woman who was gutting her own home. Amid squalor and stench, the resident, living out of a trailer, planted flowers in front of her broken-up house.

"She said, `This is still my home; I still want it to look beautiful,'" Drabyn recounted. "And that was one of the most touching things I heard when I was there."

Each of the Retrievers took away lasting images. For Hatten, it was the piles of debris dumped into the middle of the street outside every home ("There was nowhere to put all this stuff," she said). For Hunt, a sophomore guard from South River High, it was surreal.

"I'd been to Louisiana when I was 12, and it was much different this time," Hunt said. "It reminded me of a Third World country. The lights were all off, there was trash on the streets, the gas stations were closed, and they were in bad shape."

Drabyn said the sights and sounds of New Orleans were both "rewarding and disheartening."

Gutting a house - the group managed to finish two houses and start a third in five days' work - was problematic at best. It was not surprising to open a cabinet and find filthy water in bowls. Or decaying pets on the floor. Or mold and rotten food inside destroyed refrigerators.

Once the walls came down and the floors came up, there were only wood beams left and a simple framework - that and what was salvaged from homes and left for returning families.

"The thing I enjoyed the most was trying to figure out everybody's story by the things they had," said Robinson, who received use of the family van for the trip. "I was the one who always said, `Oh, they must have been a teacher.' After everybody collected things in the house, I was the one that arranged it and tried to make it look nice.

"I loved to finish gutting the house just to do that, so [the owners] would come and see something that looks nice and show we really care about them."

It was a journey that enriched the women, basketball coach Phil Stern said.

"They just have a better understanding of what they have and a better perspective on when things are going bad, how bad is it really?" he said.

Said Hunt: "It taught me a lot about how it's good to help people; just don't worry about yourself. ... I feel good about it. I feel like a better person."

Hatten was left with a valuable lesson.

"It just makes you realize you can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it," she said. "You would have next-door neighbors who had the exact same damage to their house. Neither would have anything left. But one would be so grateful that they're alive and their family's OK, and the other would just be mad at the world at what happened to them."

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