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What it's like to play football after a hurricane, and why recovery is never complete

America is trying to return to normal after Harvey, Irma, and Maria, but it can only rebuild so much.

Epic Flooding Inundates Houston After Hurricane Harvey Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

When Brandon Charles tells his story, he starts with the exact date: Aug. 27, 2005.

He had waited until the first week of school to finish a summer book project, as any 12-year-old starting sixth grade would. He took it with him to his uncle’s house in St. Martinville, a tree-lined, several-hour drive up Interstate 10 from New Orleans, where Charles and his family lived. He took his Nintendo GameCube with him, too, but only a few days worth of clothes. The Charles family has been through hurricanes before; what was one more?

Hurricane Katrina grew from a Category 3 to a Category 4 storm on the day Charles left. It reached Category 5 status a day later. On Aug. 29, Katrina struck New Orleans, dumped 6.5 trillion gallons of water onto the city, and broke more than 50 levees. It caused $70 billion of damage and put 80 percent of the city underwater. It killed more than 1,500 residents.

Charles never finished his school project. Why would he? His home was gone.

Twelves years after Hurricane Katrina, we’ve learned that there are losses that are impossible to calculate. Oh, we know the numbers. We can measure wind speeds and estimate dollar figures of damage, and we can add up how many of inches of rain. We can watch projections of these violent monstrosities of nature unfurl on our computer screens. We can count the dead.

But while losing a house is a statistic, losing a home can't be represented by a number. How do you put a value amount on a family broken apart, or a bright future that is sent spiraling, or even a senior football season that cannot be replaced? These are the immeasurable losses of a disaster.

In the wake of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, these are the losses that will linger years after towns are rebuilt. To begin to understand them, you have to talk to the people who lived through the storms.

Josh Smalley is the head coach of Orangefield High School, a town that’s a hundred miles outside of Houston. Harvey ripped through the town, and Orangefield’s elementary and high school both suffered water damage. It’ll be months until the facilities are back to where they were before storm season.

But the football team has found a way. When I talked to Smalley last week, he was preparing his team for its first football game since the flood.

“The kids need this, the community needs this,” Smalley told me. “It’s at least three hours where they’re not pulling carpet out of their house, Sheetrock out, worry about what they lost. It’s three hours where they get to come cheer for the kids, cheer for the community.”

While Smalley doesn’t know of anyone who is leaving the area completely, there are thousands of families across the southern Texan coast who are dislocated and migrating away from floodwaters to where family can take them in and jobs are available. In Orangefield, at least one senior had to quit the team after three houses among his family members were ruined.

“What they’re dealing with is a lot more important than football,” Smalley said.

News: Hurricane Harvey Caller-Times-USA TODAY NETWORK

Brandon Charles is one of those people with stubborn American ideals who refused to let the storm permanently move him. He’s back in New Orleans now, and while the house is different from the one he grew up in, it’s on the same plot of land that his family left 12 years ago.

After Katrina, the Charles family moved to Dallas. Brandon had been a baseball player, but at a bulky 6’3, he joined the Lake Dallas High School football team his freshman year as an offensive lineman. His success led him to Division I football at Texas Southern University in Houston. He’s now pursuing social work in graduate school at Southern University at New Orleans.

Charles is back in his hometown, but Katrina permanently affected him. He’s very aware that he had to mature quickly after the storm ripped his home away without warning. He remembers having a cell phone, but when he called his friends, there was only a dial tone. It would be months until he finally learned all of them were alright.

“Everything never really was back to normal. Matter of fact, here we are 12 years later, and it’s still not normal,” Charles said. “I think that was definitely the scariest thing.”

Charles is happy with how his life turned out. Some of his closest friends were ones he met in Texas, after all. But I asked him if he’s glad things happened this way and he hesitates.

No one is glad for a hurricane. No one would ask for this. Twelve years later and New Orleans is still marked by the damage that was caused. There are still abandoned homes marked only by the spray-painted Xs across the front doors. Sadder, still, is that the city has accepted that they won’t even ever know exactly how many residents died that fateful month in 2005.

The hurricane changed Charles in big ways, and in little ones. He remembers at Texas Southern, for every road trip, he would pack a week’s worth of clothes. His teammates would laugh at him, of course. “Why you got so much stuff,” they asked. The team would only be gone two days.

“Hey man,” he’d reply. “You never know.”

New Orleans Struggles To Rebuild Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The people displaced by Harvey, Irma, and Maria are only beginning to be shaped by the storms. Yedidiah Louis would like to fully credit his parents for his maturity at a young age, but Hurricane Katrina also forced his teenage self to grow up.

The Louis family relocated to Dallas in 2005 but moved back to New Orleans a year later. Louis knew it wasn’t right for him, and told his family just that. In their neighborhood in the Seventh Ward, Louis was around crime and drugs, the last thing a budding football star needed.

“(There) used to be shootouts at the corner of my street,” Louis said. “There were a couple of close calls. It just wasn’t a good environment in general.”

Louis’ parents had the same realization, and left their home again to return to Dallas. Louis played for Lloyd V. Berkner in Richardson, Texas, and is now a senior and a record-setting receiver at Sam Houston State University.

In that brief time back in New Orleans, Louis remembers the “havoc” and disorganization in the city.

“We didn’t have teachers. We would just sit in (one) class for 50 minutes foolin’ around in school,” he remembered.

Statistically, the city has recovered. Residents have returned as crime rates have fallen from pre-Katrina times. A corrupt mayor was convicted of federal crimes. Among Louis’ friends, he thinks they all seemed to make it out alright. One ended up playing football at Texas A&M.

But Katrina is a scar, make no mistake. No one I talk to, no matter how great their life turned out, is grateful for the storm. They can’t be. They all saw the life-altering power of nature, and how some people never recovered. These storms are inescapable.

“That happened to people,” Louis said. “Everyone was deeply affected in a massive way.”

News: Hurricane Harvey TODAY NETWORK

Smalley is amazed that relief workers even found Orangefield. It’s a tiny town, after all, just outside of Beaumont, Texas. There’s only 500 kids in the school system. First, two trailers with Meals Ready to Eat from South Carolina showed up a few days after the storm, then a truck from Knoxville, Tennessee, with hundreds of water bottles. An 18-wheeler was even rerouted from Houston, delivering cleaning supplies and more.

“How do you explain all that?” Smalley wonders.

It’s Friday night at Orangefield High School, just before kickoff, and his kids had earned this moment. Many players left practice in the Texas heat and headed right back to work tearing out molding Sheetrock and carpet. The city will be recovering for a long time, but football is finally back for Orangefield, and that is something that residents can rally around.

Smalley senses that this game has a different vibe. Admission is free, and so is the food -- the booster club raised enough money to feed nearly 2,000 people. Before the game, Smalley tells his team that the town just needs to see an effort that represents them: a toughness, a selflessness.

“People got the totality of what it was about,” Smalley said. “It was about more than trying to win a game.”

Smalley feels certain his team did what he asked them to, and he’s proud of that, even as the game ends in a 35-7 defeat. It wasn’t a perfect symbol of the town’s recovery, and there may be never be one. It was a step towards rebuilding life as they know it, however — an attempt to regain normalcy until the next time something comes.