"We just came out here killing time," says Wilford Simmons, 55, of Covington. "I found five coins."
Simmons says he and other members of his suburban hobby club have come to City Park once a week since January 2006. So far, no one has uncovered any buried treasure. In addition to the irony of Northshore residents coming to New Orleans to relax, however, there is evidence that City Park -- one of the oldest and largest in the United States -- is beginning to rebound from Katrina. "They are starting to clean it up better," Simmons says.
Eighteen months after Katrina, nearly all the 2,000 trees destroyed in the storm have been hauled away, and the Army Corps of Engineers has ground down many of the stumps. New trees are planted on an ongoing basis to replenish the park, which still boasts the world's largest collection of mature live oaks, officials say.
The aging arbors are estimated to be between 600 and 800 years old. The Dueling Oak, scene of bloody 19th century confrontations between men defending their honor with pistols or swords, survived Katrina. Pockets of the 1,300-acre park, founded in 1891, look better than they did right before the storm, park officials say.
The Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, for example, reopened March 3, thanks to nearly $3 million in donations for repairs and hundreds of hours of labor by volunteers. The whistle of a miniature train is a testimonial to Northop Grumman shipyards, which hired a company to re-lay half a mile of the 2.5 miles of track and to install hundreds of railroad ties. Meanwhile, Popp's Fountain is again flowing and is encircled by a newly painted fence. Progress is evident throughout the park, but so too is the storm's destruction.
In an unusual move, officials at the state-owned City Park plan to turn to the Legislature for extra funding when lawmakers return to work next month. "The sweat equity of volunteers only goes so far," and donations from foundations and philanthropists fall short of what's needed, City Park CEO Bob Becker says.
Katrina swamped 90 percent of the park with grass-killing floodwaters that were 1 to 8 feet deep, according to a park report issued last month. City Park sustained $43 million in losses from the storm, including damage to 122 structures. "Virtually every vehicle and piece of equipment the park owned were destroyed," the report says. "That includes tractors, bucket trucks, end-loaders, bush hogs, golf carts -- everything." In addition, the park's archives, records and computers were ruined.
The picnic shelters that dot the park were hit hard, first by Katrina and then by thieves. The storm caused roof damage that exposed layers of copper underneath, which were then stripped by looters.
The three golf courses, which generated 25 percent of the park's $10.6 million operating budget before Katrina, remain closed. Lacking workers to maintain the sprawling spaces, the weed-choked golf courses now resemble natural habitats.
Volunteers have cleared trash and storm debris from 11 miles of lagoons and 22 miles of shoreline in the park, but officials say they desperately need funding for routine maintenance. The annual payroll for 260 part-time and full-time employees plunged after Katrina, and Becker says even now, more than a year and a half after the storm, the park only has 28 full-time workers.
FEMA is slowly releasing millions of dollars, but park officials say that outlay will be limited to repairs. So-called "improvements" must come from other sources such as fundraisers, which have accounted for more than $10 million, but the park still needs the state's help to keep operating.
"We have submitted a request for $4 million for our operating budget -- $2 million for insurance and unemployment insurance compensation claims resulting from the storm and $2 million for operating expenses," Becker says. Last year, the park received $1.2 million in state operating funds "just to keep the wheels on," says John Hopper, director of development for City Park.
One mile wide and 3 miles long, the park's annual pre-Katrina operating budget of $10.6 million included only $200,000 from the state and zero from the city. Plus, Hopper says, the park was underfunded before the storm and actually needed a $16 million operating budget then. Most urban parks in the United States get between 60 and 80 percent of their operating revenue from some type of taxes. By comparison, City Park received only 2 percent of its pre-Katrina annual operating revenue from taxes. The park has long been dependent on fundraising and fee-based attractions, such as the amusement park, tennis courts, catered parties, weddings and admission fees.
"Our basic game plan is to open up revenue-generating facilities so that (A) we can offer services, (B) we can get some of our staff back and (C) generate revenue," says Becker.
Many City Park attractions have reopened, including New Orleans Museum of Art, the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden and the 1907 Greek-style Peristyle. The lush, 12-acre botanical gardens reopened with the help of $1 million in grants and is a popular setting for weddings and special celebrations. The casino building, which offered a popular concession stand pre-Katrina, has not reopened, but bids for its repair should go out next month. The park is seeking to repair and reopen all three of its 18-hole golf courses, including one that was the site of the 1962 PGA tournament. That endeavor is estimated to cost $8 million or more. Hopper says the state bond commission last week approved $6.2 million for golf course renovations and improvements at City Park.
The 100-tee Bayou Oaks driving range near Wisner Boulevard and Harrison Avenue has reopened, but the damaged Bayou Oaks club house probably will be demolished, Hopper says. Golf courses demand constant maintenance, but there are only six workers available to cut grass for the entire park, compared to 26 before the storm.
City Park's small flotilla of pedal boats sank or were badly damaged during Katrina and there are no immediate plans to replace the vessels until storm debris is removed. The park's lakes, lagoons and bayou have been restocked with fish, but the annual City Park fishing rodeo is not expected to resume until at least next year.
Because of heavy storm damage to Six Flags in eastern New Orleans, Carousel Gardens Amusement Park is "the only game in town as far as amusement parks," says Hopper. The area, which accounted for 13 percent of City Park's $10.6 million operating budget pre-Katrina, sustained more than 2 feet of flooding in the hurricane. Volunteers from Northop Grumman shipyards restored the popular Lady Bug roller coaster, and, overall, some 300 volunteers painstakingly painted the black wrought-iron fence that surrounds the amusement park and the adjoining Storyland, an attraction for younger children.
There are several new rides in the park, and $360,000 in bond money (part of a $1 million referendum approved by voters before the storm) from the city paid for more than a dozen new bumper cars, a popular ride for kids of all ages. The old ferris wheel was twisted by the storm and will be replaced.
The signature 100-year-old carousel at the amusement park remains closed, pending resolution of mold-remediation issues, Hopper says. Floodwater covered the hooves of the renowned flying horses, stopping just below their tails. "There will be over half a million dollars in (improvements to) this building by the time it's done," Hopper says.
Another sentimental favorite, the antique cars, are gone with the wind. The vehicles required antique parts, which proved too difficult to find. The park expects to sell the handful of rusting cars. That area of the park will be transformed into a fee-generating Birthday Village. Demand is high for children's birthday parties at the park, which offers a variety of packages that range from $150 to $300.
Amusement park admission is still $2, free for children younger than 12. Single ride tickets are $2 or $3, up from $1 pre-Katrina, and a ticket for a day of unlimited rides is $12, up from $10 before the storm.
Couturie Forest & Arboretum, a 33-acre natural forest and nature trail near Marconi and Harrison avenues, was heavily damaged in Katrina, but the National Geographic Society has donated $150,000 toward the restoration of the aboretum, which includes a manmade hill at least twice as high as Audubon Park's famed 27.5-foot Monkey Hill.
One hundred Mormon volunteers cleared tons of woody debris from the fairy tale park Storyland immediately after Katrina. Of the 26 exhibits, only the popular Crooked House suffered major damage, Hopper says. Mother Goose, which straddles a replica of a goose hanging from an overhead oak limb, "flew" throughout the storm but emerged unscathed. Storyland admission is $3, up from $2 pre-Katrina.
"The City Park Tennis Center is still one of the largest municipal tennis facilities in the South," according to the park's recent report, but only 22 of the 36 courts have returned to service since Katrina.
The park's two stadiums, Tad Gormley and Pan-American, have enjoyed strong post-Katrina support from financial contributors that include the Sugar Bowl Committee and New Orleans Saints star Reggie Bush. Hopper says funding from FEMA and the Sugar Bowl should cover restoration costs for concession areas, restrooms and locker rooms at Tad Gormley.
Built as a public works project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Tad Gormley Stadium, the site of a Beatles concert in 1964, now seats 26,500 people and hosted the Sugar Bowl invitational track meet last week. The 5,000 seat Pan-American stadium has been restored as the home for many high school football games, but is now being used for soccer. Historically, both facilities are high-maintenance and have not generated substantial revenue, Hopper says. "Some things you do because it's the right thing to do," he explains.
Most post-Katrina improvements will made in accordance with a new master plan, "City Park 2018," officials say. Adopted in March 2005, the plan calls for $115 million in improvements over a 13-year period, though post-Katrina cost hikes are expected.
Funding parks might seem a luxury given the city's other post-Katrina woes. However, more than 150 years after City Park was landscaped from the former Allard plantation, authors of a park-funded history emphasized the therapeutic effects of quiet spaces away from the hectic pace of urban life.
"The great American theoreticians of the urban park, Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmstead, argued that a reposeful view of nature would enhance the psychological peace and economic productivity of urban workers," Sally K. Reeves and her husband William Reeves wrote in the introduction to Historic City Park: New Orleans (2000).
"(Downing and Olmstead) favored parks with curvilinear roads and walks to contrast with the usual rectilinear grid pattern of cities. Likewise, they designed parks ... so pedestrians, cyclists, horseback riders, and carriage or auto drivers would not experience the disruption of crossing paths."
Driving along one of City Park's curved roads toward the FEMA trailer that houses a temporary administration building, John Hopper ponders the park's recovery 18 months after Katrina. "There's definitely momentum," he says. "And there's still interest (in the park) around the country. Even though there is steady progress, there is still tons of work to be done."
Corrections In "Bouquets and Brickbats" (News & Views, March 20), we incorrectly identified the award won by the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. The department received the Platinum Award in advertising at the 50th Annual Adrian Awards gala for its tourism advertising campaign "Soundtrack of the State," which featured scenes of Louisiana's unique cultural, musical, outdoor, family and gaming adventures set to the music of emerging artists in the state. The campaign was created by Peter A. Mayer Advertising.
In "Blake Pontchartrain" (March 20) a cutline under the photograph in the column incorrectly stated the year in which the levees broke because of Hurricane Katrina. The correct year was, of course, 2005. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.