I hand my car keys to Deuce McAllister and ask him to show me his city. And for the next hour and 35 minutes, the conscience of the New Orleans Saints steers the white SUV through his wobbly, proud and heartbroken town.
As we pull out of the Saints' team headquarters in nearby Metairie, you can see what was once the landing zone used by the Black Hawk helicopters. The Saints' complex is where the National Guard set up its central command unit in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Exhausted soldiers slept on cots in the indoor practice facility. Three huge generators provided the place with precious electricity. McAllister still keeps in touch with a handful of those soldiers.
McAllister wasn't born here, but his hometown is Lena, Miss., which makes him a child of the Gulf Coast. When the Saints selected him out of Ole Miss in the first round of the 2001 NFL draft, McAllister adopted New Orleans as his own.
His home in suburban Luling survived Katrina's brutality, but his relatives in Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and throughout Louisiana weren't as fortunate. "As far as homes and property, 95 percent of that was lost," he says, as he drives down Airline Drive toward the city. "But they have their lives, so they're blessed."
McAllister watched the network news coverage of the disaster and noticed a man trying to get on one of the buses used to transport evacuees. The face seemed so familiar. Then McAllister realized the man was one of the Saints' team cooks. He had been searching desperately for a lost relative.
"That's where it started to hit me," says McAllister, the Saints' all-time leading rusher. "He's looking for his daughter or niece. That's where it really just broke your heart."
As we inch through the early afternoon traffic, McAllister points toward the base of a highway overpass directly ahead. "Just to give you a perspective, this is how far the water came out," he says.
"How far are we from the center of the city?" I ask.
"About five miles," he says.
Even now, almost 17 months after the hurricane descended on the region, the stories from survivors still linger with him. There was the young woman who told him Katrina had destroyed everything in her home -- everything except a Deuce McAllister bobblehead doll she had purchased at an autograph session.
There were the haunting looks of evacuees at Louis Armstrong International Airport. McAllister was there about five days after the hurricane, and he'll never forget how volunteers and medical personnel used luggage carts to move some of the evacuees around the staging grounds.
And there are still the strangers who tell McAllister their sad, sad tales in letters or approach him in person and ask for help. So he offers a little cash or writes a check or refers them to his charitable foundation, Catch 22.
"You try to do what you can," he says. "You wish you could help everybody, but you know you can't. But we'll do what we can."
New Orleans has lost so much, beginning with its people. The city's population is about half what it was pre-Katrina. The French Quarter, which, relatively speaking, sustained the least damage, often resembles a ghost town during midweek. The Superdome, site of unspeakable human horrors in the days and weeks after the storm hit, has since been refurbished. The Saints play the Philadelphia Eagles there Saturday evening in the NFC divisional playoff.