Katrina + 10
August 29, 2005, is a date that is engraved on every New Orleanians’ soul. On that day Hurricane Katrina, one of this country’s deadliest and most destructive hurricanes, tore through this city. 1,833 persons were killed and property damage was estimated to be $108 billion. Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded. Residents were forced to evacuate to cities throughout the United States, making this the largest diaspora in United States history. The world watched as the levees were breached and the floodwalls collapsed. Some observers described the city as “hell breaking loose on one of this country’s greatest cities.”
It seemed as if no one and no part of New Orleans would be spared, including the beloved 1,300 acres in Midcity known as City Park. Here among the world’s largest stand of live oak trees, more than 2,000 trees were downed. Every building was destroyed or seriously damaged. Amusement rides that once entertained generations of children were demolished. The elegant Botanical Garden, home of an extensive collection of native plants, lay brown and lifeless. Maintenance equipment, electrical systems, and vehicles were destroyed. For nearly four weeks the Park languished in one to eight feet of water. In all, the Park incurred $43 million in damage. The staff was reduced from 125 employees to a bare bones group of 23. Many wondered how and if the Park would ever come back after receiving such catastrophic damage.
Staff, board, and volunteers shed many tears when they first viewed the Park. “It was destruction that went beyond our wildest imaginations,” says CEO Bob Becker. “No one could have imagined what we faced, or how we could ever bring this Park back to life.” Driving through the Park was nearly impossible as downed trees blocked the passage ways. The once verdant setting was now brown, as if the Park had become a moonscape. Water lines on walls left ghostly reminders of Katrina’s remains. But through it all, staff, board, and volunteers made a commitment to bring back City Park not as it was before, but better than it had ever been. And today it is.
Recipe for Success
Exactly five months before Hurricane Katrina landed on New Orleans soil, the Board of Commissioners of City Park adopted “Master Plan 2018,” a comprehensive master plan that detailed the direction of Park projects and programming to be completed by the 300th anniversary of the City of New Orleans. This $115 million plan was the blue print for the ambitious restoration efforts that were needed, and gave potential funding agencies tangible and attainable goals to make New Orleans City Park one of the premier parks in the United States. There, in the plans created months before the storm by the renowned national urban planning and design firm of Wallace Roberts and Todd of San Francisco and local landscape architects Cashio Cochran LLC, was the roadmap the Park would use to attract funding agencies and foundations. The master plan proved also to be the source of hope and strength as staff, board, and volunteers began their seemingly impossible task.
The Goodness of Others
As soon as locals began to return to the city, volunteers from all parts of the country followed. No one could have predicted the vast numbers of first responders, National Guardsmen, faith based organizations, college students, and caring Americans who would descend on the city to help. As these brave and generous volunteers arrived to gut homes and rebuild, many came to City Park to help clear paths and move downed trees and debris. One group of neighbors began weekly visits to the Park to mow the brown grass and clear downed limbs. Affectionately known as the “Mow-rons” the neighborhood volunteers grew into one of the most effective and dependable teams in the Park’s clean-up efforts.
Once conventions began to return to the city, visitors joined the “Voluntourism” program to help the Park. Conventioneers spent their free time digging, trimming, mulching, and planting gardens. Some painted buildings or did light construction. These volunteers, along with New Orleans individuals, schools, and businesses, continue to come to City Park to help in the rebuilding effort. To date, more than 60,000 volunteers have given the Park more than 235,000 hours of service. “This park could not have been rebuilt without the phenomenal generosity of volunteers,” says Earl Sires, Volunteer Manager.
With more than $100 million needed to rebuild the Park, staff members worked diligently to pursue every possible avenue. FEMA and insurance issues took years to resolve, but were worthwhile. Private funding from local and national foundations proved to be a godsend. Individuals who just loved the Park stepped in with small and large donations. It seemed as if everyone wanted City Park to succeed.
The Azby Fund, a local foundation jumped in early in September 2005 with a large donation that allowed for the clearing and replanting of the Botanical Garden. This gift gave the Park the opportunity to host its annual holiday light display, Celebration in the Oaks, giving local citizens a bit of normalcy during the 2005 holiday season and generating some much needed revenue for the Park. The Trust for Public Land raised $2 million, allowing the Park to revitalize a former golf course and create a popular walking/jogging area around Big Lake.
Using the 2005 Master Plan, the Park has built the Goldring/Woldenberg Great Lawn, the City Park/Pepsi Tennis Center, replanted the Botanical Garden and renovated most of its buildings, repaired all of the treasured Storyland exhibits and added two new fairytale exhibits, and planted more than 6,400 trees. The Park has also opened “City Bark”, one of the few dog parks in the United States to earn the coveted five-paw designation. City Putt, the Park’s dazzling 36-hole miniature golf complex, opened in 2013 and has been another great success for the Park.
In April 2015, a new 100-foot pedestrian bridge and parking lot at the Couturie Forest entrance opened. In February of the same year, the Amusement Park welcomed the very exciting new Lady Bug Roller Coaster. Funds have been secured for the construction of City Splash, a splash park, as well as a new entrance to the Botanical Garden. Construction has begun on the new $14 million PGA golf course, set to open in 2017.
“So much of this has been made possible by donations, large and small, from government agencies, foundations, and individuals who love this Park,” says Chief Development Officer John Hopper. “It’s taken more than a village to make this Park come back, but it has done so and continues to do so thanks to the generosity of others.”
From the beginning, fundraisers have helped City Park fulfill its mission. Celebration in the Oaks, the premier holiday event in the region, attracts 165,000 visitors each year and continues to be the Park’s single biggest fundraiser. In keeping with the Park’s effort to be as green as possible, all of the over half a million lights are LED. Other successful fundraisers include the spring time “Lark in the Park,” Halloween’s “Ghost in the Oaks,” and the newest fundraisers for the under 35 year old market, “Jingle Bells and Beer” and “June Under the Moon.”
“Because the Park receives limited state and no city funding, we have to be the most entrepreneurial Park in all of parkdom,” says CEO Bob Becker. “Maintaining a Park this size, in the manner we do, costs about $15.6 million a year. We have to earn 85% of this amount through fundraisers, fees, donations, and events.”
City Park has come an impossibly long way in the ten years since Katrina ripped through the Park. But our work isn’t over just yet. While the Park is consistently ranked in the top 10 public parks in America on many lists (something we are quite proud of), we know we can do better. In the future we hope to build the new Louisiana Children’s Museum on Park grounds. We’d also love to add an environmental education center. We plan to continue hosting a wonderful cross-section of events at the Festival Grounds. We have big dreams for the Park, and if the past predicts the future, we know we can make these dreams come true. But we need the public’s help.
“Ten years ago, we had big plans for the Park, but they were all on paper and in the creative minds of the planners. Today, those plans are a reality,” says CEO Bob Becker. “We know the future for this Park is bright, and with continued support from our volunteers and generous funders, City Park can enter the next era of this city stronger and better for the generations to come.”
New Orleans City Park kicked off their Katrina +10 events on Thursday, May 7, 2015, with a dedication ceremony.
A true success story, the Park has not only rebuilt what was damaged in the storm but has built a better and stronger Park. Ten trees will be dedicated to mark the passing of ten years since hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding areas in 2005.
The Park lost 2,000 trees due to the hurricane and levee failures. Since 2005, City Park has planted more than 6,400 new trees. Seventy-five species of trees have been planted including: 1,676 Bald Cypress, 881 Live Oak, and 327 Crepe Myrtle. On the other end of the scale, knowledgeable tree lovers may have noticed the 3 Honey Locust, 6 Chinese Fringe, 4 Mimosa, and 15 Weeping Willow trees planted throughout the Park.
The Park plans to plant at least 500 tress in 2015.
Upcoming City Park Katrina +10 activities include large photo boards at Big Lake showing before and after Katrina photos. These boards will be in place June through September of this year. You can see images of these boards and more by clicking on the photo album at the top right on this page.
The Park will also host a Thank You party for donors and volunteers this summer. Without generous donors and volunteers’ sweat equity, the Park would not look nearly as good as it presently does.
Finally, around the anniversary of Katrina, the Park will host a community day of service.
Help City Park Continue to Grow by Donating:
New Orleans City Park
1 Palm Drive
New Orleans, La. 70124
For more information, please contact John Hopper at email@example.com, or call at (504) 259-1509.