2005: Katrina whirlwind

Jimmy Headrick couldn’t help but feel helpless. And he had a car. Two cars and a Suburban, to be exact. Enough leg room to comfortably get his wife, two children, six University of New Orleans golfers, a golden retriever and two cockatiels out of the bowl-shaped depression before disaster struck. Thousands were left behind with no means to escape. Headrick prayed he wouldn’t run out of gas. As the head of his family and the head coach of the UNO women’s golf team, Headrick knew he couldn’t afford to panic. For 17 hours on Aug. 28, the day before Hurricane Katrina hit land, the three-car caravan crawled East along interstates at single-digit speeds. In Mobile, Ala., they began experiencing severe winds from the storm’s outer bands. And more gas shortages.

“People were hoping to God they could just get the hell out of there,” said Headrick. “It was a mass exodus.”

The contingent of golfers finally made camp in Bainbridge, Ga., where a local hotel gave them the first night free. At the town library they got Internet access, checked on Katrina’s progress and contacted family and friends. Then they headed to Atlanta, from where three of the six international players eventually found their way to family. Three freshmen – Therese Nilsson of Sweden, Theunette van der Walt of South Africa and Mariale Camey of Guatemala – carried on with the Headricks to Nashville, Tenn., where Jimmy’s wife, Carol, had a cousin.

Three weeks, 10 states and approximately 1,900 miles after the storm hit, Headrick finally found himself sitting in the St. Louis home of his wife’s sister while his team practiced 13 hours away at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., its new home for the semester.

His faith has kept him calm, though it’s hard to imagine a blanket of peace falling over a man who has filed for unemployment, eaten dinners at the Red Cross and taken handouts from a priest. A man whose Slidell, La., home was destroyed by 5 feet of water, and whose 18-year career as director of golf at Eastover Country Club was washed away with the course.

As Headrick reflected on the incredible journey that brought his family and team to higher ground, his soft-spoken words dripped with emotion.

“My story is not an individual story. This story is many, many people’s story,” he said. “You’ve just got to turn it over to something stronger than you are, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Nashville rolled out the red carpet for the New Orleans nomads. Belle Meade Country Club opened its doors to the UNO team, which played with borrowed clubs. Headrick’s children, Jared, 8, and Josie, 7, took in Music City’s zoo and science center free of charge. Restaurants picked up their dinner tabs, and the Red Cross gave them $130 apiece to buy clothes and shoes.

“I’m the one who’s always been giving,” said Headrick, who has a foundation that annually provides the two largest college golf scholarships in Louisiana. “And here I’m the one with my hand out, with nothing. It brings things full circle.”

Warming a pew in Nashville’s St. Edwards Catholic Church six days after the storm, Headrick raised his hand when the Rev. Joseph P. Breen asked if anyone in the service had been affected by Katrina. Headrick spoke of the kindness they’d found in Nashville and gave thanks to the packed sanctuary of strangers. His wife and children were asked to help with communion, and after the service Rev. Breen gave Headrick $250 for gas.

“That was so emotional,” said Nilsson, 19, of the service.

“I couldn’t hold my tears back.”

They each had packed only a pair of outfits, and the players, because of space constraints, had taken only their drivers, wedges and putters. Headrick, meanwhile, carried everything that meant anything to him in the green vinyl bag his golf coach had given him at Delta State University 29 years ago. It was the only bag he’d brought to New Orleans in 1976, and it was the only bag he’d packed on his way out.

“That bag will never part from me,” said Headrick, who interestingly enough was given the piece of team luggage prior to departing for Delta State’s conference tournament – hosted by none other than Nicholls State.

“You wonder how many coincidental things can happen,” Headrick said. “It’s like the stars were all aligned on this trip.”

Through it all, Headrick worked vigorously on finding a way to get his team back in school. He called on close friend and fellow PGA professional Rob Bradley, the longtime director of golf at Ellendale Country Club in Houma, La. Bradley opened his home to Headrick, his course to the team and worked to gain admission for the players at nearby Nicholls State, where women’s coach James Schilling has been a gracious host.

“This program’s not over,” Headrick said. “We’ve been through too much.”

The only pressing thing the UNO players still needed was their golf clubs. Headrick phoned athletic director Jim Miller about finding a way to get into what was left of New Orleans. Few civilians had access to the city so soon after the storm, but Miller was able to cut through the red tape. Armed with proper credentials, Headrick and Bradley headed to UNO’s campus on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

At every street corner they paused at checkpoints manned by National Guardsmen equipped with M-16s at their sides. They passed the New Orleans Yacht Club, where boats were stacked on top of each other like bathtub toys. Everything was caked in mud. The stench was unbearable.

“It looks like Jurassic Park,” Bradley said of the areas destroyed by the levee breech at the 17th Street Canal, “like dinosaurs walked through it.”

When they got to Privateer Place, the gated upscale apartment complex where UNO athletes lived, they entered rooms wallpapered with mold. Because the ceiling had collapsed, Headrick and Bradley had to dig through insulation to find six sets of clubs. They shook off the debris, sprayed them down with Lysol and threw the clubs in garbage bags. Then they drove to Headrick’s home.

Scattered across his Slidell property were pine trees broken like matchsticks. A stranger’s couch was in his backyard. A waterfront pier littered the front. And he found a menu from a restaurant located more than a mile away.

“It’s a war zone,” Headrick said.

Two precious possessions, however, managed to survive the storm – Headrick’s antique golf club collection and Bamboo, the family cat. When it was time to evacuate, Bamboo was nowhere to be found. Amazingly, Headrick found the cat 19 days later when he returned home, reckoning the cat stayed alive because dog food had floated into the den where she was hiding.

As for the wooden clubs that date to the late 1800s, they were mounted 6 feet off the ground, mere inches above the water line.

“The storm basically followed everywhere I had an association with – work place at Eastover, UNO and then at my home,” said Headrick.

Walking into his garage and seeing that the floodwaters had risen above his vintage car, a prized 1974 Triumph TR-6, wasn’t the hardest thing to swallow. Neither was standing in line for food stamps. Instead it was three simple words that struck Headrick with the force of a Category 5 storm: File for unemployment.

In the six weeks since the hurricane demolished Eastover Country Club, those are the only instructions Headrick has received from the course owner. Having been an integral part of the club since its construction, being on the outside looking in has shaken Headrick to the core.

“(Jimmy) and I are kind of at the top of our professions, and in just 24, 48 hours everything was just completely turned upside down,” said Bradley. “Literally what happened in his house . . . that’s really a metaphor for his life.”

Headrick, who was considered a part-time employee at UNO, plans to continue pouring all of his efforts into the Privateers’ program. He has been staying with Bradley and making the long trip back to St. Louis to see his family whenever possible. The team’s first tournament of the fall semester was wiped off the schedule because of Katrina, but UNO was to make its debut Oct. 9-11 at Jacksonville (Ala.) State’s Gamecock Golf Classic.

Headrick hopes Nilsson, a member of the Swedish National Team, can bump his little-known program to the next level despite their obstacles. Nilsson experienced life in the Big Easy for two weeks before becoming a full-fledged road warrior. The only high-powered storms the wide-eyed teen previously had weathered involved sheets of snow.

But Nilsson is making the most of the situation, referring to her new home in Cajun Country as “charming.” Thibodaux is a far cry from New Orleans, but there’s a mold-free apartment, a dry course and a 1993 Chevrolet Corsica Bradley helped the three freshmen find for $1,190.

Headrick’s players weren’t the only ones facing the new-kid-in-school label. Back in St. Louis, where his family had moved in with his sister-in-law and her six children under age 14, Jared and Josie Headrick were gearing up for a return to elementary school. Except, Josie, an extremely shy first-grader, wasn’t too enthusiastic about meeting her new classmates.

Dad tried to break the ice by telling the class why Josie had moved to Missouri and explaining that she was a little scared. Josie’s teacher then asked her students if they had any questions for Headrick about Hurricane Katrina.

“A little boy raises his hand and says, ‘What’s your favorite color?’ ” Headrick said with a chuckle. “Don’t you just love the innocence of a first-grader?”

It’s moments like those that keep Headrick sane. Moments that keep words like “unemployed” and “homeless” mercifully at bay.

It was an encounter with a woman in Durant, Miss., however, that gave Headrick the most unusual and unexpected moment of relief.

In the midst of one of his 13-hour commutes to St. Louis one Saturday morning, Headrick stopped on I-55 in Mississippi to help a – that had jack-knifed while pulling a U-Haul. Once the police arrived, Headrick decided to take a detour from the fast lane, opting instead for the low-key Highway 51.

In Durant, Headrick bypassed an old-fashioned gas station in favor of a streamlined self-serve. When he put his credit card in the pump, the gas stopped flowing after 27 cents. Headrick tried it again. This time 28 cents. Not knowing if there were any other stations ahead, he got back in his Suburban and backtracked to the vintage pump he’d passed minutes before.

The attendant at the station kindly offered directions, pumped his gas and washed his windshield. Weary of fast food and refreshed by the old-fashioned service, Headrick decided to dine at the attached restaurant named “The Ritz.”

Sitting at a corner table surrounded by local memorabilia, Headrick gazed up at a local newspaper dated 1955 that read “Senior Class Graduates 26.”

“There was a power that took me back to that restaurant. It took me back in time,” said Headrick. “I was thinking Rod Sterling was going to come out and say ‘Here we are in Durant, Miss., stuck in time.’ ”

As a sweet-natured waitress refilled Headrick’s coffee cup and offered a warm smile, he considered “The Ritz” to be a safe haven from the troubles that recently had consumed his life. For one lingering lunch date with no one in particular, Headrick was whole again.

“I just told (the waitress) when I left, ‘You’ve given me something I’ve really needed for the last three weeks, and I don’t ever want to forget your name,’ ” Headrick said.

“Katrina,” she replied.

“When I was walking out the door,” Headrick recalled, “she said, ‘God is with you.’

“I do believe her.”

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