- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. — The crack of helmets at midfield. The smell of hot dogs wafting from the concession stand. The old-timers in the bleachers reminiscing about seasons past. Something’s sacred about Friday night football here, and tonight it’s almost normal.

But not quite. Both teams are missing dozens of players whose family homes were wiped off their foundations by Hurricane Katrina. For one of the teams, the Hancock Hawks, the school year remains on hold until at least the middle of this month.

However, parents and administrators across the Gulf Coast region agree that football is as good a way as any to inject a shot of normalcy into the disrupted lives of thousands of area students.

“They need to run around and see their friends and gossip and flirt,” said Julie McClellan, whose two children attend Ocean Springs High School, the Hawks’ rival in Friday’s game.

Ocean Springs is just east of where Katrina caused most of the state’s damage. Like many public schools in nearby Biloxi and Gulfport, schools in Ocean Springs opened last week despite damaged classrooms and a significant decrease in student population.

Many students remain scattered across the nation in temporary housing. More than 1,100 of Ocean Springs’ 5,500 students were absent from the first week of classes since the storm, and nearly half of the district’s teachers are displaced, administrators said.

But the situation is worse in Hancock County, which includes Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, small towns that were hit hard by the hurricane.

Many of the schools throughout the county were either flattened by the storm or remain too dangerous to reopen for another several weeks.

In addition, many of the school buildings were used as emergency shelters and relief headquarters immediately after the storm, which means it “takes longer to get the school ready for students because of the extra cleanup,” said Sister Jackie Howard, principal of Our Lady Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Bay St. Louis. The school is not likely to reopen before Nov. 1.

Officials say Oct. 14 is the earliest date the county’s public schools will reopen. While many worry about languishing lesson plans, the focus now is clearing the debris out of classrooms and repairing damage.

Officials at Hancock High School said piles of trash and broken appliances were left behind by an Ohio National Guard unit that was stationed at the school during Katrina’s aftermath.

“I’ve never seen a military unit leave a place in such a mess,” said the school’s military recruitment liaison, retired Army Sgt. Maj. Larry Ladner. “They left their MREs [meals-ready-to-eat] laying around after they’d finished eating and there were ants all over here.”

The C Company 237th Forward Support Battalion of Columbus, Ohio, did not respond to requests for comment.

But the greatest battle is the one against mold creeping throughout the building since filthy floodwaters covered the floors.

“All the chairs have the mold on them. My chair has the mold on it. Everything’s all rusted and moldy,” Assistant Principal Billie Shook said.

Mrs. Shook, who lost her own home in the hurricane, said she worries about how her students are faring in the storm’s wake. Administrators aren’t sure how many of the high school’s 1,200 students have returned to the area, how many are living in shelters or how many may have been killed.

“At least one student died,” Mrs. Shook said, adding that with telephone lines still out across much of the county, officials don’t know more “because of lack of communication since the storm.”

For now, everyone is hoping the pressure will be eased, at least temporarily, by a few hours of Friday night football. With 2,000 parents, students and local fans cheering them on, the Hancock Hawks and Ocean Springs Greyhounds played like there was no tomorrow.

Perhaps it was because of their ranking as one of the best teams in Mississippi this year, or perhaps it was because their town wasn’t as close to the path of the hurricane. Either way, the Greyhounds won with ease, 42-6.

But nobody questioned it was the Hawks, whose legendary program in years past has spawned such big-time football legends as Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who left their hearts on the field.

With a roster cut nearly in half because so many families have not returned since the storm, Hawks assistant coach Gary Sims gave his players a simple pre-game message: “We’re not refugees or whatever they want to call us,” he said. “We’re Hawks tonight.”

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