How do you rebuild a business wiped clean by Hurricane Katrina? Start by dodging the M16s. A week after the storm pummeled the Gulf Coast in late August, Tim Spero, the chief technology officer for the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, drove to the team's training facility in Westwego, La., with a fellow Hornets employee and two friends. Their mission: to retrieve the team's teal uniforms, a batch of video equipment and a few computers to ship to another city when--or if--the Hornets started their preseason training camp. Reports of violence and looting had spread to Westwego; the team's tech guy carried a shotgun for protection. The military had taken over the facility, so to grab the supplies, Spero's crew had to duck under the few hundred rifles stored in the player's lounge. Pistols were strewn on the Ping-Pong table the players had used to pass time. Fortunately, the guns weren't loaded. How did the men know? Says Spero: "There were boxes of ammo in the weight room."
An eerie season had begun. The Hornets tipped off their 2005-06 NBA campaign last week more than 700 miles from New Orleans, in Oklahoma City, Okla., where the team has relocated for at least a year. (To keep ties to Louisiana, the team will play six of its 41 "home" games in Baton Rouge.) NBA franchises usually get 18 months to establish themselves in a new market. From the time the Hornets finalized their move to Oklahoma City on Sept. 20 to their first regular season game on Nov. 1, the Hornets had 42 days. During that time, the team's 110 employees, many with homes damaged or destroyed and families left behind in New Orleans or diaspora cities from Atlanta to Washington, needed to secure new sponsorships, resell tickets and replace everything from the team's marketing director--too stressed to keep working, to the mascot's costume, soiled by flooding. The Hornets offer a glimpse into the cruel challenge many Gulf Coast businesses now face post-Katrina: trying to mend a brand while managing social trauma. Hornets president Paul Mott says, "This has been like one long, long, long day."
The dark morning arrived Sunday, Aug. 28, the day before Katrina's Gulf Coast landfall, when the last of the team's workers evacuated New Orleans. Hours before gale-force winds started picking up steam, Mott and the families of three Hornets workers boarded team owner George Shinn's private plane for San Antonio, Texas. Basketball administration chief Steve Martin, a New Orleans native, woke up that morning expecting to ride out the storm. He finally relented at 8 a.m., when he called Mott to ask whether there was any room on the plane for him, his wife and his son. "If we stayed in New Orleans, we could have been homeless," says Martin. "We could have been in a shelter." Mott had three extra seats.
Over the next five days, as other NBA teams prepped for the season, Katrina overwhelmed the Hornets' business plans. The team set up a Yahoo! site to ascertain if workers were alive. Martin's father, 78 years old and eight months past triple-bypass surgery, had refused to leave his home. He was now missing, and Martin feared the worst. By Friday, Sept. 2, Mott located everyone. Martin found his dad in an Austin, Texas, shelter; he had spent three days in the squalid Superdome.