LSU Struggles for Balance

The National Guard unloads patients from a helicopter onto LSU's running track. Two of the school's athletic buildings have become rescue areas.
The National Guard unloads patients from a helicopter onto LSU's running track. Two of the school's athletic buildings have become rescue areas. (By Chris Graythen -- Getty Images)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La., Sept. 3 -- Much like the Louisiana State campus and athletic department, LSU Athletic Director Skip Bertman is stuck, quite literally, between dueling realities.

He walks to one window near his office and sees a handful of college students, a peaceful campus where classes are scheduled to start Tuesday and a football stadium where he envisions hosting a game next weekend.

He walks to a window down the hall and sees dozens of police officers and doctors, emergency helicopters landing on the school track and a basketball arena in which dozens of evacuated hurricane victims recently died.

At LSU, Bertman said, heaven and hell are separated by a two-lane street and a few makeshift police barriers, and Bertman's office sits on the dividing line. Two of the school's athletic buildings, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and the Carl Maddox Field House, have become rescue areas for some of the most dire victims of Hurricane Katrina. Every day since Monday, about 1,000 people, most in need of immediate medical care, have been dropped off at the school. Many receive treatment and leave for another shelter. Some stay in intensive care. Others die under the LSU basketball scoreboard.

The school's other prominent athletic structure, Tiger Stadium, is at the center of a different effort: to provide a brief respite to a football-crazy state and a major college campus by hosting a nationally televised football game against Arizona State on Sept. 10.

LSU has already postponed one game, scheduled for Saturday against North Texas, and some have said football has no place a few hundred yards away from hurricane victims battling for their lives. But it's there, Bertman and others said, where a game next weekend would be most effective.

"Football is woven into the fabric of society here, and to play next weekend would be great medicine for an ailing state," Bertman said. "Some people might call it insensitive, but sometimes you need a distraction. You need a game."

Fighting for Lives

Anthony Small needs a game so he can think about something besides death, which has consumed his mind for almost a week. He thought he was going to die in his New Orleans apartment before a helicopter rescued him and delivered him to the LSU campus. He has seen at least a dozen people die, he said, since he arrived here Monday night.

"It would feel pretty good to see people partying and cheering," said Small, 36. "It's been awhile since I saw something good like that."

Since Monday, almost all he has seen is the inside of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC), where a few hundred people lie on stiff cots under plastic yellow sheets. The arena is divided, like a hospital, into several sections, all marked by signs. Dialysis, intensive care and pediatrics each occupy a section of the gymnasium floor. There are 12 medical baby cribs, at least 10 electronic shock machines and a makeshift waiting area for families of the injured.

Many of these people, university officials said, were evacuated from New Orleans hospitals, where some have already fought for their lives. At the Maravich center, many don't make it. Nurses and volunteers occasionally have to administer CPR, and bodies are carted out quickly to a local morgue.

Once a patient is stabilized, he is moved to the Maddox Field House, where more than 400 cots fill a gym the size of three basketball courts. It's as much a shelter as a hospital. Small is glad, he said, that he was placed there immediately after a brief checkup and rehydration.

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