08/31/2005 11:00PM

Realizing their city is gone

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Thad Ackel, known best in the Thoroughbred game for his work with the Breeders' Cup Turf winner Great Communicator, is a New Orleans homeboy who now finds a large slice of his personal past submerged beneath the flood waters spilling over the levees. He has a home in Shreveport, to the north, and a condo in Metarie, a New Orleans suburb hit hard by flooding.

Ackel was on business in Tucson, Ariz., when Katrina hit, but he knew his immediate family was evacuated and heading for Houston, while his son and daughter, both college age, had made it safely to Baton Rouge with their mother. The Ackels are divorced.

"It was just last year, when I was selling a piece of property in New Orleans, that I told my son, Thad Jr., it would probably be a good idea to get our investments out of the city," Ackel said. "I told him then that if not in my lifetime, certainly in his lifetime we are going to have a natural disaster. It's just inevitable.

"And I'm no guru," Ackel went on. "There have been very recent studies predicting what would happen if a Category 5 or 4, or even a Category 3 hurricane came up the mouth of the Mississippi. When I saw the eye-wall of the storm pass and miss the city, I thought we might have made it. But we couldn't survive the aftermath."

Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye and his wife, Juanita, are both Louisiana natives. They have lived in California since the late 1970's, but they still have deep ties to the New Orleans community. More than 20 of their close relatives were forced to evacuate.

"They live in east New Orleans, night near the Industrial Canal where the levee broke," Delahoussaye said from his home near Santa Anita Park. "Everything's under water. But they were lucky. They got out."

The Delahoussaye evacuees headed for New Iberia, about 100 miles east of New Orleans, where Eddie Delahoussaye was raised. They will be staying in the home owned by Delahoussaye's father, who passed away last fall.

"I've been devastated," Delahoussaye said. "I just can't believe it. When I was a kid, I used go fishing on the Mississippi River. To do that you had to climb the levee, and that levee was about 15 feet high.

"Everybody knew, living there, that if a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane ever hit and those levees busted, they would be under water," he went on. "I guess when you build something 12 feet under sea level, something's eventually going to happen. And it happened. It finally happened."

Bryan Krantz, whose family sold the Fair Grounds Racetrack to Churchill Downs Inc. last year, has been keeping friends updated via e-mail bulletins. The Krantz home is on Lake Pontchartrain near the town of Kenner, just 18 miles east of New Orleans, in the Gabriel development built on the site of the former Jefferson Downs racetrack, owned by the Krantzes as well.

Krantz evacuated his family safely to Baton Rouge, some 60 miles to the northwest, then ventured forth on Wednesday to survey the damage back home.

"Our first stop was in St. Rose, and right away the stench of rot was apparent," Krantz wrote. "Every stop we made had a similar smell. Roads in the neighborhoods were nearly impassable.

"After seeing the massive flooding in Kenner on national news, we were not optimistic about what we would find," Krantz went on. "However, Kenner was totally dry as we rode through the city. The Gabriel site is right on the lake adjacent to the Duncan Canal . . . the rot was heavy in the air as we surveyed the site. As we looked around Chateau Boulevard there were dead fish in both directions as far as you could see."

Krantz went on to offer a sober warning.

"Most of the news coverage is on search and rescue in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans," he wrote. "It is evident many are dead there as well. Below the Ninth Ward is St. Bernard Parish. What I heard today indicates about 50 percent of the parish evacuated. The vast majority of the populated areas in St. Bernard Parish are now under 15 to 20 feet of water, according to many reports.

"If this is correct, there are thousands dead in St. Bernard to add to certainly a count in the hundreds if not thousands in Orleans. Emergency preparedness has ordered in excess of 10,000 body bags. Things tend to be overdramatized in these situations, but I do believe there is much tragedy ahead."

The sadness is pervasive, not only for the loss of life, but the loss of a way of life. Both Ackel and Delahoussaye were prepared to say goodbye to the city they knew.

"I'm not feeling sorry for myself at all," Ackel said. "I'm looking at what most of these other people are going through, and it's just so sad. I grew up there. All my friends are there, not to mention family, and ties to the local restaurants, the bars, the places that made it such a community, the social circle New Orleans is so famous for. That's all torn apart now."

"That's what's so sad," Delahoussaye added. "Who's to know if there will ever be a New Orleans again?"