Illini Gridder Block prepares to deal with hurricane season, again



By Daniel Johnson

The past days have been particularly stressful for left guard Eric Block, and it has nothing to do with becoming a starter or attempting to rebound after a deflating loss to Missouri.

For the second time in a very short period, Block and his New Orleans-based family had to deal with a hurricane. Three years after Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated $10 billion worth of damage to the area, New Orleans, and the Block family, had to endure more severe weather.

Block’s family lives in a suburb of New Orleans, Metairie, in a single-story house that took on water during Katrina.

“We had about two feet in our house, but we lived on the opposite side of one of the levees that broke,” said Block, who attended Jesuit High School in New Orleans. “The water didn’t sit, but I lived in a one story house, and the water pretty much destroyed everything. We had to rebuild, start over completely.”

Block’s family has been on a journey since the house was damaged in 2005, which seems to be fitting for the lineman. He finally had his first career start against Missouri on Saturday – a journey, much like his family’s, that has been a long one.

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Block said twice Tuesday that he was fortunate: first when he got a chance at his starting position and a second when he considered how little his family suffered during Katrina, relative to the rest of New Orleans.

“We didn’t really have any structural damage to the house, we pretty much just gutted and started over from there. We were lucky because my mom was there, my dad got back as soon as he could (after evacuating to Florida.)”

A family friend who is also a contractor offered to help repair the house that he had worked on when Block was about four years old.

“He said he was taking 10 houses to work on, and he asked if we wanted him to work on ours, and we obviously said yes,” Block recalled. “We were in probably nine to 10 months after the hurricane, which is lucky because it was a lot earlier than most people got back.”

Block’s extended family has been an important part of the journey, but his immediate family, specifically his brother, Joel, is on a journey of his own. Joel, a junior, is spending the year traveling throughout Japan as a part of his academic curriculum at the University of Alabama.

“He just went up there on Thursday, last Thursday, I think, for the whole year actually,” Block said. “He’s trying to get into a Japanese major, I think, but he loves the language. He got all the brains in the family.”

Block can’t help but laugh at his self-deprecating humor. But given that he has worked so hard for what he finally received, on and off the field, it’s probably easier to laugh at yourself along the way.

The political science major takes a drink, still drenched in sweat from practice before continuing.

“He’s over there in Japan, I’ve talked to him some on the computer, but he needs to get a Japanese phone, he needs to get on it so I can talk to him.”

When Joel does return home, he’ll be one of the countless residents of New Orleans to bring something different to the bayou. In a city that had always been known as a veritable melting pot of music, food and other customs before Katrina, Block can attest to the recent accounts of New Orleans culture coming back into its own.

“I think for everybody in the city, we’ve got a sense of pride about the city again,” Block said. “It’s like a resurgence of New Orleans culture; we just feel lucky, more or less, because we’re getting the city back. We feel like we’re obligated to give the rest of the country, the future people, a taste of it. The Saints, everyone is proud of them, and the Hornets, and culture just blew up again. It was kind of, I don’t want to say on the downside, but it was pretty stagnant, pretty much the same. But after the hurricane, there was just an explosion of culture.”

Unfortunately for the city and the Block family, the impending tropical storm season may set back much of what the city had accomplished over the past three years. When Gustav was bearing down on the city, the Block family had to review some familiar city-ordered procedures.

“There was a mandatory evacuation,” Block said, laughing, unexpectedly, likely more because of the incredibility of the situation.

But where did his parents end up during this evacuation, being displaced for hopefully what will be, but likely not, the last time?

“They’re at home,” Block said. “My mom stayed and she works at the hospital at East Jefferson General Hospital (in New Orleans). She was there for two weeks during Katrina working straight.”

Block’s tone is far less comedic and one of responsibility.

“She’s the head nurse of step-down ICU (a variation of the intensive care unit), she had to stay. My dad stayed in the house, he said he didn’t want to leave my mom for a second time.”

As much as Block would like to see his family, he is all too aware of the responsibility of being in a place like New Orleans now. He would love to see his family this weekend for the home-opening Renaissance – something that New Orleans was experiencing until recently. But if his family doesn’t make it, he will know why.

“Maybe, we’ll see,” he said. “I’m still guessing on that (they will attend), but I’m sure there’s a lot going on down there.”