Nearly a decade ago, LSU football coach Les Miles was ill-prepared for one of the most challenging times of his career when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast before he even coached a game with the Tigers.
Miles on Tuesday recalled his first year at LSU in 2005, which will forever be associated with one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, as the keynote speaker for the American Red Cross Heroes Luncheon.
In addition to being a fundraiser for the Red Cross, the event was held to remind area residents to reflect on the upcoming 10th anniversary of Katrina and to prepare and be ready for the “next big one.”
Being new to the area, Miles admitted he wasn’t ready for Katrina as it churned through the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2005 and slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi just five days before his scheduled debut against North Texas in Tiger Stadium.
He didn’t even know what a generator was.
“My background was with tornadoes, snowstorms and thunderstorms with rain and sometimes hail,” said Miles, who was born in Ohio and played football at Michigan. “I was ill-prepared for that circular thing they show on every newscast that was a hurricane.
“I was driving back and forth to work (before the storm) and I said, ‘This is a beautiful day … they’re complaining about this storm? I’m not getting it.’ I was the guy that said, ‘Surely, it’s not that bad.’ ”
What followed was a life-changing event for everyone, but especially for Miles and his assistant coaches and players, many of whom had to feed and house and take care of families displaced by the storm.
Miles became emotional a couple of times during his 20-minute talk when recounting the days, weeks and months that followed, and the toll it took on some players.
At least five of them, he said, didn’t hear from their families for at least a week.
But together, they helped the area recover, spending countless hours doing what they could with the injured that were transported — many by helicopter — to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, which had become a triage facility.
“In between all these practices, our players and trainers would go over to the PMAC and volunteer,” Miles said. “You could see the fatigue on the faces of the players. We saw doctors and nurses and volunteers, and saw families reunited.
“We saw people with different kinds of injuries,” Miles added. “There were people who had been walking in water and had severed their Achilles’ heel from something sharp underneath the water and had to have it re-attached.”
All the while, they had to get ready to play a game against Arizona State that was moved from Tiger Stadium to Tempe and then face Tennessee on a Monday night after Hurricane Rita dealt another blow to the region. They won the first one and lost to Tennessee, but continued to persevere during an 11-2 season that included a Southeastern Conference West title and a 41-3 pelting of Miami in the Peach Bowl.
Before the storm, Miles said his group always played for team first, then for himself. But that changed in the fall of 2005, he said, when that squad and every one since has played first for the state of Louisiana.
“We recognize so many heroes, so many people that do the thing they do,” Miles said. “They do it better and do it for the people that they live with during those times (of crisis).
“I think the strength of the state of Louisiana was never more evident than in how it handled that storm. I’ve always been that guy from Michigan, but when that happened, I enjoyed saying, ‘I’m from Louisiana,’ and I always will be.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.