By Susan Schindehette
Updated February 19, 2007 12:00 PM
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LIVES AND BUILDINGS WEREN’T THE ONLY THINGS UPROOTED and destroyed when Hurricane Katrina came churning through New Orleans; the storm also swept away some of the city’s most gracious traditions. One, the Young Men Illinois Club’s annual African-American debutante cotillion, held every year since 1927, had only been interrupted by the likes of two world wars. But when Katrina ruined the auditorium where the ball was usually held, chewed up the elaborate decorations—and even washed away some of the girls’ gowns—all seemed lost. * On Feb. 2, members of the club, founded in 1926 by Pullman porters to give young black women a formal introduction into society, were back on the dance floor. The setting for this year’s resurrected cotillion—transformed into a fairy-tale palace with fabric and painted backdrops—was nonetheless heavy with symbolism: the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where thousands took refuge from the floodwaters during the chaos after the storm. “We had to replace everything,” says ball captain Lawrence Robinson, a 32-year club veteran, “but now we can celebrate here, with this new experience, with these hopeful debutantes.” * Two of them are twins Evan and Elizabeth Egana, 17, students at New Orleans’ Eleanor McMain High School, swathed for the occasion in yards of sequined satin and tulle. After evacuating to Arkansas, the sisters returned to find their Pontchartrain Park home destroyed. Today they pass its gutted shell on their way to school, and though they sometimes cry for a lost way of life, they say, their family is rebuilding. “It’s not weird to be here,” says Evan, the more emotional of the debutante sisters, on setting foot in the convention center to prepare for her big night. “I’m glad we’re part of new memories.”