Thursday 26 April 2018

10 years ago today: when hell came to New Orleans

The rebirth of an expat soccer team - and the Irish bar they met in - tells you a lot about an iconic city that's become great again.

Stephen and Pauline Patterson rebuilt their bar, Finn McCool's, with help from the bar's newly formed soccer team
Stephen and Pauline Patterson rebuilt their bar, Finn McCool's, with help from the bar's newly formed soccer team
Ordeal: A woman is carried out of flood waters after being trapped in her home in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Caitriona Palmer

On a high school football pitch in the Mid-City neighbourhood of New Orleans, a group of forty-something Irishmen will today don cleats and camouflage jerseys and take to the turf for a much anticipated kick about.

The match is not just a celebration of the beautiful game but of the fragility of life, a fitting tribute to the 1,800 people who died across the Gulf region when Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans 10 years ago today on August 29, 2005.

"Ten years ago, the pitch that we're playing on was under six feet of water," Stephen Rea (45), a Belfast native and member of Finn McCool's Football Club, told the Review. "When the waters receded, they turned the football field into a FEMA trailer park to house some of the people who had lost their homes during the storm."

This week there are numerous events across New Orleans to remember Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the US that caused $106bn in destruction and damaged or destroyed more than a million houses and businesses.

But the Finn McCool football match is a one-of-a-kind event, a remarkable story of how one Irish pub and its Sunday morning football team came together in the wake of a disaster to rebuild a community and each other's shattered lives.

"Without the football club we wouldn't have gotten through the year or so after the storm," said Stephen Patterson, owner of Finn McCool's Irish pub in Mid-City which was completely destroyed following the storm. "It's our proudest achievement. A lot of the boys have moved on but the team has stayed together. It's absolutely the best thing."

Belfast native Patterson (48), who co-owns the pub with his wife Pauline, can still remember the moment when he walked into his pub six weeks after the brackish waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain had receded. The bar that Patterson and his wife had sunk their entire life savings into and built from scratch just three years earlier was a sodden, toxic mess. Whatever valuables the storm had spared had been taken by looters.

"It was as bad as I had imagined it to be. Everything was completely destroyed. It was pretty gut wrenching," said Patterson. "We had built the bar by hand. Wanting to make it more Irish, we had put in a lot of wood and an old copper topped bar. All of that was completely destroyed."

Stephen Rea, a regular patron of Finn McCool's, remembers his shock upon returning to New Orleans three months after Katrina.

"It really felt like the wild west. It felt like you were living in the 19th century," said Rea, the author of Finn McCool's Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead. "There were no schools, no hospitals, no traffic lights, no trash pick-up, no electricity. Huge parts of the city were in complete darkness. Nobody was around.

"What really struck me was the deathly silence. We were in a major American city and there was just nobody around, there was nothing. There was just dust and mud encrusted cars sitting about. The whole place was just dead. It really was post-apocalyptic."

Assessing the sunken shell of his once thriving pub, Patterson understood that he had two choices: to pack up and leave New Orleans or to face the near impossible task of rebuilding Finn's. "By the end of that day there were about 15 or 20 customers of ours who had turned up to encourage us to come back," he said. "I guess it was that moment that we realised that this was our home and we weren't going to leave."

Some of those who encouraged the Pattersons to stay that night were also members of Finn's Sunday morning kick-about team, a ragtag bunch of expats - Irish, English, Scottish, Dutch and South Africans - who had decided to form their own football team.

"The soccer team had been a big part of our lives," remembers Rea, a Chelsea fan who was in the initial pub line-up. "I had struggled for a while to make friends when we first moved to New Orleans.''

Just 10 days before the storm hit, Finn McCool's FC were due to play their first competitive match. Now, in the wake of the hurricane, players were scattered all over the United States, stunned and unwitting refugees of Katrina.

In the chaos, South African team member, Benji Haswell began an email chain to check in on the players. Some had fled to Texas, others to California. "Let's keep going here," Haswell wrote.

Joining other members of the Finn's community, the first order of business was to help rebuild the pub. After hours spent gutting the pub, team members went to each other's houses, helping to tear down mould infested walls. Those left without homes moved in with each other. One teammate from Galway - living in a narrow house with his own family - took in another Irishman and his four children. Stephen Rea and his wife made room for a friend whose pregnant wife had lost her mother in the storm. Nobody complained, everyone pitched in."For most of the people on the team, this was as close to family as we had. That forged the bond," said Rea. "What we all went through, there was a real sense of helping each other. Everybody stepped up for everybody else. We took turns going around helping to gut each other's house. It did bring us all a lot closer."

Six weeks after the storm there was a small smattering of Finn's team members in Mid-City, enough for an impromptu practice session. Another six weeks after that, 12 players had returned.

"Even though it was three months after the storm, and there were hardly any people living in New Orleans, we got our team up and running again," said Rea.

Six months after the storm, on St Patrick's Day 2006, Finn McCool's reopened. Later that same year, the pub's team were promoted to the first division and a year later, in the autumn of 2007, they won the league. Rea believes that the legacy of Katrina had bestowed on Finn McCool's FC an unique resilience and competitive edge.

"I think that the storm definitely gave us something," said Rea, "it gave us an edge. We had an unusual narrative back story to our team because we were really formed out of Katrina and that did mould us in a certain way."

Today, close to the pub, the original Finn's line-up from 2005 - including Stephen Rea - will face the current team who just last month secured the same cup that Rea and his teammates brought back to the bar in 2007.

"We've come a long way from a bunch of old aging expats who had an idea to kick a ball about one Saturday afternoon," Rea said.

After the game, the team will retire to Finns for a celebratory session with food and drink piled on by the Pattersons. It will be a poignant reunion, a chance for old friends to reconnect but also an opportunity to remember 1,800 lives lost.

For Stephen Rea, the game will be a moment to reflect on what he sees as Katrina's bittersweet legacy. "People come and go out of your life but Katrina taught me how important friendship is," said Rea.

"I think we'll take to our graves what we went through. I might have only known these guys from the football pitch but when it mattered, they were there to help each other out."

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