Protocol for what to do in the midst of a hurricane was something not lost on Longhorns guard Javan Felix growing up in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. He’d been through his fair share unfortunately.
It was all pretty straightforward.
1. Bunker down in the top floor of the two-story house.
2. Don’t be alarmed when the power goes out - and stays off for a few hours - because it will.
3. Make sure you drink plenty of water because the morning after a hurricane is a special blend of hot, muggy, humid and suffocating.
4. Keep the faith.
It’s just the way it was for the Felix’s. Their house never flooded. Ever. So Javan had no reason to think it would be any different in late August 2005 when he started to hear about Hurricane Katrina for the first time two weeks into his sixth grade year.
That is, until he saw the news one day after school.
“The Mayor, Ray Nagin, said it was a mandatory evacuation. So we left,” he said. The chain of events that took place after that will remain with Felix forever, especially this week, 10 years after Katrina left the Big Easy anything but.
Rodd Felix told his son to pack three days worth of clothes. He did and soon the entire Felix family – Rodd, Tina (mother), Javan (sixth grade at the time) and his three younger sisters (Julia, Jaida, and Jordan, who was 10 months old at the time) – piled into one of their family vehicles and set off for Ellisville, MS., where his grandmother, Dorothy Simpson, lived.
The drive, which usually took them 90 minutes, lasted seven hours this time as people flooded the highways trying to get out of harms way.
“Slidell is 20 minutes outside of New Orleans,” Felix said. “By the time we got there it took us four hours. By that time they had opened the other side of the interstate. No one could get into the city. I remember that.”
Even though they were 135 miles northeast of New Orleans the Felix’s weren’t entirely clear of Katrina’s path.
“We left [Aug.] 28. The storm came the 29th,” Felix said. “Everything you would think of from a hurricane happened there. We roughed it out that night.”
The power went out that night and remained off the next day so the Felix’s decided to continue on to Atlanta where Rodd’s sister, Debbie Slaton, lived.
When they awoke the next morning, though, they noticed the huge oak tree in Grandmother Simpson’s front yard had fallen and blocked their car in the drive way.
“We walked to Ace Hardware and people were just handing out chainsaws and stuff,” Felix said. “It took us four hours to cut a big enough hole in the tree to get the car out of the driveway. Then we went to Atlanta.”
This was all unprecedented to Rodd Felix.
He told Javan to only pack three days worth of clothes for a reason: he didn’t think they’d be gone that long.
But reality sank in when he saw with his own eyes what damage Katrina did to his neighborhood.
“It had flooded in New Orleans before but the residence we lived in never flooded,” Rodd said. “But when I saw on the internet there was a site where you could go to your actual block to see if it was flooded or not, and I saw our house was flooded, then I was truly devastated. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Rodd did the only thing he knew how. He put one foot in front of the other and kept going, all with a positive demeanor as to not startle his family.
“Being a father of the family, just making sure that everybody was OK,” he said. “I had to make sure they felt safe. As a father, I’m trying to think of how we were going to survive.”
Rodd eventually found work as a federal probation officer in Atlanta where the family started to make a life for itself.
Though he was only in sixth grade Javan’s protective instincts for his little sisters took over. If there was ever a time to tell a white lie, the hand that Katrina dealt them was the perfect opportunity.
“They were too young to understand that we weren’t going to go home for a while so we tried to keep it away from them,” Javan said. “My oldest youngest sister [Julia] was the most curious one. She was always asking questions. I tried to make sure that she knew we had to make a new life for us in Atlanta and adjust. I was nervous myself.”
Julia was just entering second grade at the time.
“We are four years apart,” she said. “He knew what was going on and I didn’t. I would ask him questions and he would give me the kid version of it. He would try to make sure that I was OK.”
Javan rotated those three sets of clothes for a month before he got his hands on some donations from the Red Cross.
“I didn’t know anyone,” Javan said.
Neither did Julia.
“I remember telling my mom that I wanted to go back to see my friends,” she said. “I just thought we were going to leave for three or four days.”
The Felix’s did as best they could in Georgia but they missed Nawlins greatly.
“There was just too much tradition for us in New Orleans to leave,” Javan said. “The same house that I grew up in was the same that my dad grew up in. I actually grew up in the same room as him.”
They had to get back so Rodd set plans in motion to make it happen. His job opened back up in New Orleans in January.
“For a brief time I was living in a trailer on our front yard while our house got fixed,” he said. “I also stayed with some friends.”
The rest of the family moved back home once the house was fixed up later in January.
Prior to that move back Javan’s parents returned home to salvage what they could, and took pictures that, to this day, still resonate with their son.
“The thing I remember the most was the water line on the outside of the house,” Javan said. “There was this mildew water stain going all the way around our house about five feet up. I was just in shock. That was a lot.
“Inside, everything was just messed up. Somebody had broke into our house and took towels, medicine, shirts, just stuff they needed to survive. My dad had left a car there and it was completely under water.”
Felix didn’t leave his room at all that first night back. He didn’t go to sleep either. “I was just so happy to be back home,” he said.
But then reality set in and Javan realized very quickly that his friends weren’t back home like he was. They were scattered from Houston to Atlanta.
“Once I figured out that none of my friends were in New Orleans, because we came back early, it was tough,” he said. “I never wanted to come out of my room.”
Javan used to cry at time because he wasn’t sure if he’d ever see his friends again.
“At the time I didn’t have a phone, and they didn’t either,” he said. “That was before the Myspace days. I was starting all over again at home, a place I thought would be back close to normal.”
Occupying his children’s time after school was something else that weighed on Rodd Felix’s mind.
“Being the first ones back [of their friends] presented a challenge because after school and work, what do you do? How do your kids spend their time? That proved to be pretty challenging,” he said. “Javan friend’s comprised of a lot of his basketball friends in the summertime. But they were spread out from Houston to Atlanta. Things didn’t start to feel normal until the summer of 2006 when the team got back together.”
That’s where his love for basketball came into play.
A coach at St. Augustine High School, where Javan would eventually grow into the Louisiana 5A Player of the Year as a junior, would open the gym every night for the kids in the neighborhood to play. The lights in the gym didn’t work yet and there was no air conditioning. But there were two hoops, some hardwood, and a basketball. That’s all Javan needed.
“It was stupid hot but we would go through drills in there and that kept us going until my parents got off work,” he said. “That helped me get away from all the negativity.”
In a roundabout way, had Felix and his family not relocated to New Orleans there was no guarantee that he would have ended up on the 40 Acres.
His first introduction to Texas may have been the T.J. Ford-led Longhorns that reached the Final Four in NOLA during the 2002-03 season, but it was really New Orleans native D.J. Augustine that kept his burnt orange attention.
“I loved watching him play. He was the best person in the city at the time,” Felix said. “Once he went to Texas it just made me keep an eye on Texas.”
Felix came down for an elite camp held at the Frank Erwin Center during his eighth grade season when he bonded with Augustine.
“So once I got that offer it was a no-brainer,” he said.
Before Felix could start his new life in Austin, his current life at the time in New Orleans needed some fine-tuning. The entire city needed a boost in moral. Enter, the New Orleans Saints.
During the summer of 2005 there were reports that Saints owner Tom Benson had interest in moving the team elsewhere with Superdome negotiations in a holding pattern.
As it turned out, post-Katrina Superdome damage did displace the Saints. They played one “home” game against the Giants, four home games in Baton Rouge when LSU didn’t need its stadium, and then three home games in San Antonio at the Alamodome.
If the Saints were going to move it wasn’t going to be because Rodd Felix didn’t try to prove to Saints ownership that he wasn’t invested in the team. He bought season tickets in 2006.
“I specifically got them after Katrina because I didn’t want Tom Benson to think the fans didn’t support the team. I made a sacrifice,” he said. “I was going to do my part. What a time that was.”
On September 25, 2006, the Saints played their first home game in the Superdome since the storm and Rodd and Javan were in attendance.
“It didn’t really hit me [how special the city was] until the first Saints game in the city after Katrina,” Felix said. “It was the best thing that I have pretty much been a part of. Everyone was so emotional. There was no way that Falcons were going to beat us. At the time Michael Vick was my favorite player because we had just come from Atlanta. But I couldn’t root for him.”
That day went a long way toward helping Felix reconnect with his city.
“Before that when I went to Atlanta everyone made me feel like I was an outcast,” said Felix, who just got back from NOLA a few days ago. “I never wanted to be like ‘I’m from New Orleans’ and say it with confidence. Right after that I had no problem. I felt like it showed how special we were as people to come together to keep the Saints in the city. As a city we came together and made that happen. Ever since then New Orleans has been a special, special place.”