by Matthew Bonnette, GeauxPreps.com Contributor
Three years ago on August 27, the landscape of Southwest Louisiana changed forever, both in a physical sense and mental capacity.
In the early morning hours, Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, devastated the area, knocking down most in its path including decades-old trees, homes and businesses. The 150 mile per hour winds battered SWLA non-stop for hours, and some reports state the storm likely reached Category 5 power, but the wind instruments in the Gulf of Mexico were knocked off-line due to the ferocious winds while the eye was making landfall.
Everyone’s lives began that “survival” mode the days and weeks following the storm. There was no power or water for weeks. There were gas shortages. Food, groceries and water were hard to find. But SWLA is a resilient region with blue collar working people who not only find a way to adapt and make progress, but also to help out their fellow neighbor, even if it is a stranger.
Survival mode was in full effect for the local schools at a time when the new football season was gearing up for the new slate of games.
“There was significant damage throughout our community and school,” said Iowa Yellowjackets head coach Tommy Johns. “I went through (Hurricane) Rita (2005) when I was an assistant at St. Louis (Catholic HS). It was a lot different then but the damage for Laura was a lot worse.”
Back in 2005, technology wasn’t what it is today. Cell phone coverage was spotty. Texting and group chatting were just beginning to boom and become popular. Maintaining communication with staff and players was nearly impossible.
Johns learned from those days 18 years ago, and made sure he had a plan should something like another Rita happen. It did in the form of Laura.
“I took a lot of that situation and applied it to this storm,” he said. “We were in constant contact with our players and staff and made sure everyone had what they needed. We were all in the same boat. My house was destroyed as were many others’ homes.”
The football stadium at Iowa HS was beat up pretty good as well. The visitor side press box was demolished in the storm, stadium light fixtures dangled from their setting, and a storage shed that housed field equipment was blown away with all of its contents inside.
“We found a goal post pad about two miles away on the other side (north) of Interstate 10,” said Johns.
For Barbe High School, the damage to the athletic facilities and football stadium weren’t any lighter.
“We got back in our stadium the next year,” said first-year head coach Skeet Owens who was an assistant coach at the time. “But still today, our gym still isn’t ready. Our weight room isn’t ready. We’re having to lift (weights) in our locker room. But these kids are fighters and they’re doing what they can to get ready for the season.”
A season is what Barbe did not have in the fall of 2020. Only a few area teams did play a varsity schedule, Iowa being one of them.
“We played a modified JV (junior varsity) schedule,” said Owens about his Buccaneers. “We played four games and only had 34 kids and two starters from the previous year. Safety was a big concern.”
For Johns and Iowa, safety was the top priority but Johns also knew, mentally, the players, coaches and community needed an escape from the apocalyptic scenes throughout everyone’s neighborhoods.
“We played a five-game regular season and ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs,” said Johns. “I truly believe with us playing, it saved helped save our program.”
A program where in 2022, played in the Louisiana Division II Semifinals, one game away from reaching the championship game in the Caesars Superdome, which is every Louisiana high school football player’s dream.
Yellowjacket players were spread around the state and region as a result of the storm and Johns knew many would be seeking to transfer to be able to play, especially his seniors. He encouraged them to do so, but he also stayed in constant contact with them in case the decision to play was made.
“As soon as we got the green light to play from the (Calcasieu Parish) school board, we began contacting everyone about returning,” Johns said. “They all returned and were ready to go. They would work and take care of clean-up and their personal things, then would come to practice. They also knew that it was okay they couldn’t make practice because of helping the clean up or being with family.”
High school athletes were hit with a double-whammy in 2020. First, Covid canceled all spring sports competitions then the 1-2 punch of Hurricanes Laura and Delta wrecked havoc on fall and winter sports.
The 2023 athletic season might be the first “normal” year for most of these athletes in their entire high school career.
“Back then, we got freshmen that didn’t play in middle school because of Covid or the hurricanes,” said Owens. “We had to train and teach them football. The numbers are getting back up. It’s constant progress.”
For Iowa, football was a great escape from the reality of living in ruins for a while.
“Mentally, that was a relief,” said Johns. “The two hours out there every day for practice, it got all that other stuff off our mind. It was just worrying about playing football.”
Much has been learned after living through two of the most destructive hurricanes just 15 years apart.
“You gotta have your starting points,” said Johns. “You have to have a process of how to handle it. Know what to expect. You have to know what to do to be able to play. There is no timeline and won’t be one until the school board gives the ok.
“Knock on wood, but I don’t know if it can get any worse than Laura. If we can handle and overcome that, I think we can handle and overcome anything.”
Friday night lights kicks off its 2023 season on September 1, but there’s no argument that should those lights be strewn across the field because of another storm, the shear will to play will have the games back up and running within no time.