NEW ORLEANS — It was a too-good-to-be-true story and an early example of the way urban legends and fake news can explode on the internet.
Billy Graham, aging and in poor health, was so energized and inspired during his last great sermon to a crowd of more than 16,000 at the New Orleans Arena that he boarded a mobility scooter and led the throngs on a blocks-long trek to the French Quarter. There, according to the story widely circulated via email 12 years ago, "the once blaring music of nightclubs and strip joints had been replaced by weeping and worship as people poured out their drinks and sought prayer from the Christians who were now reaching out to them."
The truth of Billy Graham's trip to New Orleans in 2006 — nine months after his last revival sermon in New York City and six months after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of New Orleans — was less spectacular. But it didn't need embellishing.
It was mid-March. Spring was near, but there was little sign of it in those New Orleans neighborhoods that had disappeared under flood waters when the levees broke.
The Lower 9th Ward, for instance, remained a bleak landscape of dead vegetation, crumbling houses, dust and debris.
It was no place for a frail, elderly man.
But there was Billy Graham, his son at his elbow as he addressed a group of reporters.
"My heart is really stirred and moved," Graham said, his voice frail. "My heart goes out to the people who lived here, who had their dreams and hopes like everybody else. Now it's all gone."
Graham, who died Wednesday at age 99, called for prayer and invoked the name of Jesus. But Graham and his son Franklin — his successor as head of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association — offered more than thoughts and prayers during that trip. Their presence lifted spirits. And Franklin Graham's charitable organization, Samaritan's Purse, provided aide that included trailers for many affected by the storm.
What may be just as important, Billy Graham's presence refocused the media spotlight on a city still struggling after the storm that killed hundreds in the city. Graham, who said he was overwhelmed by the devastation, seemed to sense the need for the publicity as memories of tens of thousands stranded in the sweltering Superdome were fading.
"This is a far greater disaster than the average American understands," he said in an interview with The Associated Press the following day.
There would follow the message he delivered to an overflow crowd at the 16,500-capacity New Orleans Arena, with the overflow crowd watching on large screens on the concourse of the nearby Superdome. It was a message he had summarized in that AP interview: "I just want people to know they're loved and they're prayed for."
His 20-minute sermon would be followed by his familiar altar call, an invitation for those in the audience to come forward to accept Christ.
And that's where the story of Billy Graham's post-Katrina visit to New Orleans would end. No scooter trip down to the French Quarter followed by thousands of people singing When the Saints Go Marching In. No talking drunks out of their whiskey or strippers into their clothes. Imbibers on Bourbon Street didn't suddenly decide to dump their beer. No such miracles.
The mystery is why anyone thought that the legacy of Graham - a figure on the national stage for more than half a century who met a dozen presidents - needed embellishing; or why anyone would think a fantasy of Bourbon Street conversions would be more compelling than the sight of "America's Pastor," diminished by age, stunned at the destruction he was witnessing but steadfast in his message and bringing comfort and hope to people in a decimated American city.
Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.