Richie Stevens Jr and Katrina, one year later

RICHIE STEVENS JR. AND HURRICANE KATRINA, ONE YEAR LATER Q&A conducted by Judy Stropus NEW ORLEANS (Aug. 28, 2006) - It's been one year since Richie Stevens Jr., who drives the Team Mopar/Valspar Dodge Stratus R/T for Don Schumacher Racing in...

RICHIE STEVENS JR. AND HURRICANE KATRINA, ONE YEAR LATER
Q&A conducted by Judy Stropus

NEW ORLEANS (Aug. 28, 2006) - It's been one year since Richie Stevens Jr., who drives the Team Mopar/Valspar Dodge Stratus R/T for Don Schumacher Racing in the Pro Stock division of the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, fled his native New Orleans escaping Hurricane Katrina. Instead of returning home after what he thought would be just a day away, he found himself driving to the U.S. Nationals with four friends in a small car with just enough gas to get them away from the stricken area to an open gas station.

Stevens and his friends made it to Indianapolis in time for Stevens to compete in the U.S. Nationals with just a duffle bag and a week's worth of clothing, at best. Remarkably, he made it to the Pro Stock final round at the prestigious race, but just missed winning the event.

We caught up with Stevens in New Orleans today as he continued to rebuild his life following the devastation which destroyed his home and business one year ago and as he prepared to return to the U.S. Nationals for this weekend's event at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind.

Q&A with Richie Stevens Jr.:

1. It is now the one-year anniversary since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on your hometown of New Orleans. Your home and business were destroyed. How has this changed you as a person?

A. A lot. I learned a lot about patience in the past year. It's been a big waiting game. A lot of frustrating times. It's definitely made me a more patient person, I can honestly say that. Right now in in New Orleans, you have to stand in line for things, supplies are limited, and it's hard to get people to do jobs, especially on the house and the business. You're trying to get back together and you're delayed two, three, four months, at times, because everybody is doing the same thing.

The only answer is to rebuild and go on and deal with it. It's something that was thrown at us, something that we couldn't do anything to prevent or to help out. You do the best you can to get through it and hope it doesn't happen again.

This hurricane season just started again and we've been lucky thus far with nothing to come this way. I know there's one out there right now ("Ernesto") that's brewing, that is coming this way. Let's just hope that it doesn't.

They're still building flood walls here, there is still a lot of work to do in New Orleans. There are areas still without power and traffic lights down. There are still abandoned cars and houses. There are areas that still look like they did five days after the storm last year.

It's been a long road. Luckily, in my case, I have racing to fall back on. I get to kind of get away at times. It's nice to leave here and to just get away from the surroundings. It's nice to get to a city that doesn't have any problems, as far as destruction. The racing has been good to me.

2. You fled New Orleans thinking you would return the next day and found yourself heading to Indy and the U.S. Nationals instead. When you think back to that time, what comes to mind?

A. Actually, when I left New Orleans, I packed up a bag thinking I'd be back home in a day. I didn't think I'd be gone for a month. What I had with me was not much at all. Just a duffle bag and four or five days' worth of clothes in it. When we left (with four friends) and we got stuck in Hattiesburg, Miss., when the storm made a turn and then came that route, was when I knew it was for real.

We went to bed that night thinking we were going to get up the next day and go home. That night the storm came through, and we heard the wind and the rain, and just felt the destruction. We were right next to a forest area and we could hear trees cracking. That's when we knew it was for real.

The next day we woke up and and found there was no power. We looked outside and it was all nice and sunny, but there was stuff everywhere. The hotel next to us had fallen apart, and signs were down.

Then we were stuck. We couldn't leave and we didn't know what to do. We heard that at home they had 20 feet of water in some places, 10 feet of water in other places. How do you go back to that?

We put our heads together and made a decision. I knew that I had to be in Indy for the race (the U.S. Nationals), and the only way that I was going to get there was by driving. Catching a plane was totally out of the question and going back home was not an option, so we just put all our eggs into one basket - one car, I should say (the one that had the most gas in it) - and drove up to Indy.

3. What is the status of your and your dad's businesses right now?

A. My business, Stevens Auto Parts, is back up and running. Business is slow. There's very little clientele, but at least we're open. We're just trying to get back on our feet. We're still cleaning up a lot of the outside, the debris and destruction.

My dad's shop, Stevens Collision Center, is pretty much like it was right after the storm. We went in and cleaned it out, got all of the mud out and gutted the offices, and picked up what we could. But the roof is still ripped off of it, the garage doors are still missing. He's just kind of waiting to see what the area is going to do. The shop is in New Orleans East, which is one of the heaviest hit areas and his shop is pretty big. it would take a lot of money to get it back together. Rather than him wasting it and the area not coming back, he's just kind of being patient - that's the key word - and just trying to see what the area is going to do.

If people start coming back, then he'll put the money forth to rebuild it. If not, he's thinking about just selling it all and moving it across the lake (Lake Pontchartrain) to the Slidell area, where he lives. I guess he'll make a decision when it comes time. He has new ideas, different ideas, so it's kind of a daily waiting game.

4. Where are you living?

A. Right now I am living in Metairie, La., which is just bordered on New Orleans. I'm less than two miles outside of the parish line. I'm living in a rental house right now. It's really nice, but it's not home. It's just temporary until the new house is done.

I'm actually at the new house right now and doing some painting. I'm hoping to be in it by the end of September. It won't be completely finished, but it will be livable. I can finish it as I go. I just want to be able to live in it and quit paying the rent where I am and just try to get into the house.

I have a lot of work to do. The upstairs part is fine, it wasn't even touched by the storm. It had about six-and-a-half to seven feet of water in it, so the downstairs was hurt pretty good.

We got all the sheet rock back up, we got all the windows in it. Hopefully in the next couple of days we can get the power turned on and I can move in. I'm hoping to move in the next weekend I have off, which is toward the end of September.

My old house is gutted up to the ceiling. It's basically just the structure, stucco and studs. It's up for sale. I'm not going back to that area of St. Bernard's and Chalmette. That area is real slow to recover, pretty much like New Orleans East. And it's outside of the levee, the flood protection. It would be taking a chance going back out there. There's not a whole lot of people taking that chance.

Somebody can either buy it and rebuild it if they have the guts, or they can buy it and tear it down and sit on the property, but I'm not going to go back to it.

5. Have you ever considered leaving New Orleans?

A. No. This is where I've been 27 years. I was born and raised here, my family is here, the family business is here, friends, good food. It will come back. It will take a little while to come back, but there's too much history here to let it go and to leave it.

I've been all across the country with racing. I've been to many different cities, and, like they say, there's just no place like home.

6. How do you view the city's rebirth? Is it coming back to life one year later? Better or worse?

A. It's a very, very slow process. You still see areas that are shut down, you still see houses with no windows, no doors in them. You still see cars at the side of the road everywhere, but you do see signs of life, and you're seeing more and more green grass. Before, there was just mud everywhere. Now you're seeing grass pop up. Especially in the area that I'm moving to. You're seeing more and more people coming back.

You go down to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street and life is like it was before. You wouldn't be able to tell that anything ever happened. And you go out to Metairie where I live now and life goes on just like it did before. There's pretty much no heavy damage out there.

But you go into the Lakeview area of New Orleans and New Orleans East and Chalmette, and that's where you see all of the destruction. But it's coming back. The government was really slow in responding and a lot of people didn't get their insurance money, so a lot of people are doing this out of their pockets and it's taking a little time for them to gather it up, but I believe that it will come back.

I actually saw a newspaper this morning that had a one-year-to-date chart and it was showing the population. It's still down a little bit, but it's a a lot better than it was six months ago.

7. How much of an effect did Katrina have on your professional life as a race-car driver?

A. I'm going to say not much. It was frustrating at first, especially in Indy last year. I got to Indy not knowing how my family was, my parents. I didn't find out until that Thursday night before going into the race that they were even still alive.

But I'm not going to say it's affected me that much, because I look forward to going to the races. Not that I didn't before, but now it's like a vacation more than a job, to get away from here and to get a normal life. It's rewarding.

We've been struggling a lot lately, which doesn't make it that great, but I'm hoping it will turn the corner soon.

Racing is my getaway, I guess. I'm glad to have it. A lot of my friends around here have lost jobs, families lost jobs, parents lost jobs, and I was fortunate to have one that still carried on. It's been a reward to me.

8. Assess your professional life as of this date and heading into the U.S. Nationals.

A. It's been good. It's been frustrating lately. We've had crew-member and crew-chief changes this year. It's taken us a little while to adapt. David Nickens came on board with Mike Sullivan and Terry Adams. They're getting things turned around, making good power. We just had some bad luck. We stumbled a lot, we barely got into a couple of fields, qualified in the bottom half. It hurts on Sunday when you don't have lane choice, but I think it's for the better. I think it will turn around.

Indy is one of the better races I had last year and hopefully we can capitalize on it instead of finishing second like we did last year. It would be nice to win that one. It would've been nice to have won it last year. That would have been a definite high point. We missed it, but I think the year has gone pretty well, considering all the changes that we've had. We're still hanging in the top 10 in points. I'm 11th right now, but only by eight points. We can change that pretty easily.

We just need to get on a string of good luck. We had a lot of misfortunes and broke a lot of parts this year, and hopefully we can get around it and get our things together.

9. What is the one thing you will never forget about the Katrina ordeal?

A. I guess the one thing I'll never forget is coming back to it. The whole time I was away, from the time we evacuated to going to the U.S. Nationals, and finally getting to come back home, we heard so many stories about where we were going, what had happened, how much water they had here, how much damage they had here. And when I finally got to come back to my house, which I had left in perfect condition, nice and clean - I actually swept and mopped the day I left, which was a total waste of time - and saw it with a foot of sloppy, nasty mud, my sofas on top of my bars, walls that had collapsed, a truck standing on its nose in front of my house up against the palm tree, looking up and seeing the 17-ft. water line on my walls, is when it really kind of hit home.

I didn't even want to step in my house. I knew I wanted to go in and see it, but I went to the front door and saw the mud and the slop that was in there and I didn't even want to go in it.

I knew I had to go in. The only reason I went in was to try to find the racing medals that I knew were in there, from the races that I won in the past years. We never did find them; we looked all day long. That was quite a birthday present. The day I got to go back to my house was on my birthday.

We tried all day to find the medals, but couldn't find them. I salvaged a couple of things - nothing to jump up and down about. It was quite an eye opener to see the destruction.

I just pray that it never happens again. Once is more than enough, I think, for anybody to handle, especially the level of destruction that we had.

I think it was about two weeks before I came back home to New Orleans, and it was a month before I got to get back to my house. Because in Chalmette, in St. Bernard's Parish, they wouldn't let people in because it was still bad out there. There was still standing water and downed power lines and things like that blocking the highway. I wasn't able to get back to my house until Sept. 27, my birthday, about a month later.

After the U.S. Nationals we drove back home and I got to my parents' house, that was as far as I could get.

10. What would make your life perfect right now?

A. You don't realize what you have until it's gone. Everybody says that, especially in relationships. But this time, dealing with my house and business and family and everything like that, perfect would be to have it the way it was before the storm, to have my old house back. I really enjoy and love my new house, but I would like to just have everything the way it was before.

I know it's not going to happen. You can sit and wish and pray all you want to, but it's not going to happen. I think that would make me and a lot of other people very happy, to go back to Aug. 28 and skip the next few days and just carry on.

The racing could be better. We could be doing better racing. I'm just lucky enough to have it and to be able to be out there and be with a team like Don Schumacher Racing and have all the amenities of a first-class team. I'm already blessed in that perspective. There are a lot of people who wish they could be where I'm at, so I'm just lucky to be there.

11. Are you and the city ready for this hurricane season? Do you think the city is being spared by some unknown power as we see that there have yet to be any hurricanes hit the U.S. in 2006?

A. No, I don't think they're ready for it. I just watched a special on HBO the other day that Spike Lee directed and they asked a bunch of experts from here, talking about the flood walls and levees. They honestly looked at the camera and said, No, the city is not ready. That was taped about a month ago, and I don't think too much in a month has changed their answers to make them say, Yes, the city is ready.

The new house that I bought is actually about a quarter-mile to a half-mile from one of the breaks in the levee. The 17th Street Canal wall that broke is right around the corner from me, so I'm hoping that they get it back together.

I believe that this one is stronger than any of the other ones that broke. I've been watching it every time I come to the house. I still don't think that the city is up for it. They still say that a bunch of the pumps that pump the water out are still down and in need of repairs. So, if a hurricane was to come back similar to Katrina, I think it would be a lot worse.

We've had a lot less rain since Katrina. I don't know if you want to call it coincidence, but we've had very little rain in the year since the storm, which has helped out in the rebuilding process. But we're still behind schedule with the rebuilding process and the city still has a long way to go and a lot of work to do. I would say that they're doing the best they can. I don't know that for sure; only the people doing it and the people funding it know that answer.

12. You were widely supported by your fellow racers during the devastation. Is there anyone you would like to especially thank?

A. Definitely the PRO group. They raised and pulled together a lot of money for me as well as (Pro Stock Motorcycle racer) GT Tonglet. That meant a lot. I didn't expect it to be quite the amount it was; it was a very significant amount. It definitely went to good use, for me at least.

It's great to know that they're there to help out when you need them, if there's an accident on the track or family issues, or something like that. To pull together as well as they did - all of the members of the PRO group, including Kenny Bernstein and everybody else who supports PRO - and I thank them a bunch. There are no words that can say how much it meant. Don Schumacher helped out a whole lot. He gave me a car to use for some time, and offered to help anyway he could, with a place to stay, anything like that.

Jeg Coughlin (my teammate at the time) and his family let me live with them in Ohio for over two months. That was a help. That just made things a lot easier on me with traveling to the races. The New Orleans airport was shut down, so after the storm (when I stayed with my parents at their home on Lake Pontchartrain) I started to drive to a lot of places. I drove to Atlanta, drove up to Ohio. It was kind of hard to drive to all of those races and, since Jeg had his own plane and flew to the races himself, it just made it a whole lot easier. And he offered to let me stay with him and go with him to and from the races. It was a big burden lifted off my shoulders.

There's a ton of other people who helped, but those are the main ones who tried to help me personally.

13. Talk about your 2007 plans.

A. To be back on my feet here at home, to have this house done and to try to get back to a normal life rather than everything being in a temporary mode. I'm in a temporary house right now. It seems like everything we build and put together at the shop is temporary, just to get by until we get more sturdy equipment. That, and home is what I'd like to get back to.

Racing-wise, I just hope to be back out on the track. I don't have any contract with Schumacher or with Mopar, but hopefully they're pleased enough with my performance to bring me back next year.

Valspar is still with me. They'll be with me until they don't want to be. They're very supportive. They helped out a bunch throughout this whole deal too, so I just hope for the best. I'd like to be out there again next year and hopefully we'll finish on a high note this year, which would make it easier to come back and be out there again next year.

-credit: dsr

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Richie Stevens Jr. , Kenny Bernstein , Terry Adams , GT Tonglet , Don Schumacher , Mike Sullivan