As a caravan carrying New Orleans Saints players and front-office employees traveled along a road Sunday morning at a closed Air Force base that is serving as a relief shelter for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, team officials spotted an elderly man wearing a white Saints T-shirt and thought they'd found a devoted fan among the displaced people they were about to visit.
As it turned out, they'd found much more.
The members of the Saints delegation soon learned that the man was Lester Vallet Sr., a former longtime employee of the club whose son still works for the team. Vallet had been transported to the shelter after leaving his flooded home in New Orleans, and he hadn't been able to get in touch with his wife, Carolyn, since rescue workers took her from the house last week.
"She sent me to look for her sister," Vallet said, standing outside one of the two buildings at the Kelly USA industrial park where refugees are being housed. "She stayed home. When I got back, they'd rescued her. There was a note on the door. They said they'd be back for me. But they didn't come for me for two more days, and I haven't been able to find her."
Vallet, who turns 83 next month, was wearing a Saints belt buckle that he said was given to him by former coach Bum Phillips. Vallet, who said he worked as the Saints grounds superintendent for 30 years, is the father of Lester Vallet Jr., who is the team's assistant facilities manager.
"I'm speechless that we found him," Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said.
Vallet said he thinks his wife was taken to the Superdome in New Orleans and then to the Astrodome in Houston. With the Saints having set up their operations in San Antonio, Vallet's son had been planning to pick him up from the shelter later Sunday, but Saints officials said they would take Vallet back to their hotel after their visit.
Vallet said his house in New Orleans has about two feet of water in it, and his two cars outside are underwater. He built a platform on his porch and stayed there until he was rescued, he said, and he arrived Friday at the San Antonio shelter.
"They're doing a pretty good job, the best they can," Vallet said. "You've got about 2,000 or 3,000 people in there. They're not serving any hot food, but cereal and milk. There's water. People are happy just to be alive and just to be able to have a place to sleep and a place to get food and water."
According to Randy Jenkins, the public information officer for the San Antonio Fire Department, there are about 10,000 Katrina evacuees at four facilities in San Antonio, including a Levi Strauss factory and a mall department store. About 4,500 of those evacuees are in the two buildings at Kelly USA (formerly Kelly Air Force Base), Jenkins said.
Seven Saints players visited the shelter, and the team plans to make other visits.
"It's heart-wrenching," linebacker T.J. Slaughter said. "I was happy that we were able to come down here. It's crazy for these people, that one day you have a roof over your head and the next day you don't have anything. Seeing it up close now, seeing these kids and seeing people with no clothes, it tears you up."
Two huge rooms inside the building the Saints visited contained cots that were lined up virtually wall-to-wall. Large fans set up throughout the two rooms helped people endure the heat. There was a television set on a table, near the tables where food and water were being handed out. People were gathered in a corner of one room singing gospel music. In the other room, there was a table with phones that evacuees could use to make free calls.
Administrators kept the players outside until they could round up enough police officers to serve as escorts. But the players were greeted warmly as they made their way from cot to cot, talking to people, exchanging hugs and holding babies. One young man tried to convince Loomis to sign him to a contract.
"I'm excited they're here," Linda Thompson, a New Orleans woman staying in the shelter, said after meeting tackle Wayne Gandy. "They're helping a whole lot by being here. We need them to win. We need them to give us a lift and get the city back on its feet."
Other Saints players arrived in town later Sunday after being given Friday and Saturday off. The team is scheduled to practice here Monday as it readies for its regular season opener next Sunday at Carolina.
At a Sunday evening news conference, Loomis said the Saints plan to remain in San Antonio all season and want to play their final seven home games in Baton Rouge, La.
The NFL announced Friday that the club's Week 2 home opener against the New York Giants would be played at Giants Stadium, and Saints Coach Jim Haslett said Sunday night that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue put the team "behind the eight ball playing the first game on the road" instead of in San Antonio or Baton Rouge.
Loomis and Haslett were quick to add they weren't complaining about their circumstances after seeing firsthand the predicaments of the hurricane and flood victims.