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Katrina's Marinas 

Some of the storm's worst damage still sits, rotting, at the bottom of lakefront harbors -- with a cache of pollutants to boot.

More than 200 children and their families from across the country came to New Orleans last Thanksgiving to compete in a two-day youth sailing championship on Lake Pontchartrain. The kids, some as young as 8, launched their 7-foot sailboats from the grounds of Southern Yacht Club, which had burned to the ground during Katrina. As they headed out to the adult-supervised racecourse, the young sailors had to navigate around the still-foundered sailboats and powerboats in the city-owned Municipal Yacht Harbor at West End.

The marina and the surrounding boathouses, like much of New Orleans today, lie in ruins. Worse yet, the numerous masts that rise from the harbor's waters only hint at the environmental hazards concealed below. The apparent lack of urgency in using federal funds to clean up the marina underscores the bureaucratic disconnect between levels of government and, more important, the lack of communication between government and citizens.

Ben Goliwas, a local fixture at the marina who lives aboard his boat, was astounded when he returned to the city in May and discovered the near total lack of progress and cleanup since the storm.

He called upon the memberships of the New Orleans and Southern yacht clubs to volunteer their time removing debris from the waters, and the members responded. Volunteers from the tightly knit sailing community attempted to raise boats that were blocking the channels. Seriously under-equipped, they used truck tire inner tubes and inflatable racing marks to raise sunken vessels.

"We only touched the surface," Goliwas says. "We've removed maybe 30,000 pounds of wreckage, but unfortunately that's nothing. Everything you can consider is in that marina."

Katrina washed nearly 102 boathouses and their contents into the marina, along with more than 450 large wooden dock boxes that sat at the boat slips -- many of them holding stores of paints, solvents, oils, batteries, fiberglass resin and other chemicals. All of this debris now rests on the bottom of the marina alongside rotting boats, many with their fuel tanks full of diesel. Goliwas doesn't exaggerate when he adds, "You wouldn't want any of that stuff down there in your living room. We've only been able to pull out hot water heaters, refrigerators, parts of walls and other unidentifiable large wooden things."

Carlton Dufrechou, president of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, expresses similar concerns. "We really need to determine what and how much is down there. It's guaranteed that something is leaking. We just don't know the magnitude of it, but leaving it in place is not an option."

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, at the request of the City of New Orleans, recently noted the estimated 125 sunken vessels in Municipal Harbor. Unfortunately, DEQ didn't seem to grasp the full extent of the environmental hazard until it conducted several site visits. The tipping point came when Bruce Hammatt, the DEQ official managing the project, saw the youngsters racing their small boats on the lake last November.

"That's when I knew we had to include in the cleanup a sweep of the marina bottom," Hammatt says. "Kids were out there having a regatta."

With all boat records lost during the storm at the on-site harbor master's office and virtually every sunken vessel physically unidentifiable or inaccessible, DEQ had to improvise in its attempts to track down boat owners before moving on the project. DEQ's initial approach was to use whatever records it could locate, but most were years out of date.

Officials ultimately decided to treat all foundered boats as abandoned. There may be lingering legal questions as to whether owners' insurers are required to remove the boats or remediate environmental hazards, but those issues will have to wait. The immediate problem is removing the hazards, period.

In December, DEQ put out to bid a contract for removal and disposal of the sunken boats and is now prepared to award it. But the department has run into another delay. DEQ is now waiting on FEMA to approve the "project worksheet" (which commits the agency to reimburse pre-approved expenses) for the marina cleanup. And that "PW" is not about rebuilding the marinas to pre-Katrina standards -- just for cleaning up the mess that Katrina left behind.

Adding to the difficulties in Municipal Harbor are the many new, undamaged, slightly damaged or repaired boats that either relocated from the destroyed South Shore Harbor marina or survived the storm in the marina and remain in their respective slips.

"We originally thought about requiring them to leave but eventually realized that there was nowhere for them to go," says Hammatt. He notes that DEQ plans to work around them or move them a few slips over while it searches underwater for debris using side-scanning sonar.

By comparison, the Orleans Levee District appears to be slightly ahead of the game in its cleanup of South Shore Harbor, which initially was in a similar, if not worse, condition. With an estimated 57 sunken boats and another 90 grounded in the parking lots, the district has awarded a contract for removal and disposal of the vessels and for debris removal from the marina bottom. Mobile-based DRC Inc., which held the contract for abandoned-car disposal throughout the city, landed the levee district's $690,000 contract and is now in the process of cleaning the marina.

An Orleans Levee District spokesman told Gambit Weekly that the DRC contract also covers hazardous debris removal from the bottom of the much smaller levee district-owned Orleans Marina, which is the inner harbor south of Municipal Harbor at West End. However, Steven James, a DRC manager, says that's not so.

The dispute, if there is one, may turn on the fact that while the Orleans Marina lost relatively few vessels during Katrina and today looks fairly normal, several marine service companies located in the marina were washed out by the storm. Much of their debris, including the chemicals and resins used in boat repair, probably rests on the marina's bottom. Cleaning up that mess may be more than DRC bargained for.

Nowadays, after initial fears of abandonment, any sign of movement from government comes as heady news for boat owners as well as the many marine sales, service and supply businesses that have nearly all returned to West End. They are, in fact, among the few functioning businesses in Lakeview these days.

"A functioning marina is vitally important to all the West End businesses, including those in Bucktown and Lakeview, from the marine repair shops to the restaurants to our organization," says Armand Alciatore, commodore of the New Orleans Yacht Club. Dale Steinkamp, a local sailor and businessman, adds, "Municipal Harbor is the crown jewel of West End, and its recovery will help bring back all of Lakeview."

Many boaters, marine business owners and racing crew members played a vital role in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, particularly in the Lakeview area. Using their boating expertise, access to boats and knowledge of the area, many were out in the floodwaters rescuing stranded people from rooftops throughout the lakefront. Since then, the yachting community has struggled to keep a culture and a way of life alive.

Sailboat racing in New Orleans is frequently ranked among the nation's best by prestigious sailing magazines. That has prompted organizers of several national sailing events to come to town to help their local counterparts cope with post-Katrina hardships and devastation. US Sailing, the governing board for sailboat racing in the United States, scheduled a convention in New Orleans last month, and the 73rd running of the Allstate Sugar Bowl Regatta wrapped up in December.

Tulane University, which in 2004 completed a $20,000 renovation of its sailing team's facilities in the marina, is anxious to get the random battered boats removed from its launch and boat storage facility there. "Insurance removed and replaced the team's boats that were destroyed and/or lost during the storm, but they can't use their own facility," says Guy Brierre, a spokesman for the sailing team. "It has been very frustrating. If it weren't for the generosity of Southern Yacht Club, the team would be out of business."

To be sure, the sailing community understands that a marina is a low priority in comparison to the vast post-K needs of the city. Many boaters live in the hard-hit neighborhoods of Lakeview, Gentilly and Mid-City. Even so, they worry about the fact that the city hasn't even started filing paperwork with FEMA -- the first step for rebuilding these assets.

Mayor Ray Nagin only recently appointed the governing board for the Municipal Harbor. The board met for the first time on Dec. 6. A few days later, board president Lynn Cawthorne acknowledged that he had no knowledge of whether a project worksheet had been filed with FEMA. Later, a Nagin spokesperson said the paperwork had been filed, but no details were offered.

Then there are the boathouses. For some, the harbor was a great place for a party house. For others, it was home.

The issue becomes even murkier than the marina's polluted waters when you hear Kerry Cuccia, president of the Boathouse Owner's Association, talk about the concerns of individuals and families who lived in the marina. Many of them are unable to finance rebuilding without longer leases from the city, which thus far has declined to process property transfers so some owners can move on and others can come in to rebuild.

On top of all that, after the storm, the city waived rent payments from the leaseholders, but to this day has still declined to accept rent checks, even though they have been offered. Rumors abound of a "land grab" for condominium development.

Eric Granderson, chief of staff for City Councilman Arnie Fielkow, discounts those fears. "If there was talk of a development, we would have heard about it. It would have to go through the proper channels with the City Planning Commission, and then it would come to the Council at some point, completely above board."

Cuccia remains upbeat, but he acknowledges that the fears are "a product of all the uncertainty." He adds, "We only want to get things back to normal, including paying rent."

One other question has arisen, and some members of the harbor board have promised to investigate it: Because Municipal Harbor was issued integral building loans from the federal government in 1981, the harbor's charter states that the marina should be self-sustaining, capable of issuing bonds, and that none of the harbor's income can be placed into the City of New Orleans' general fund. So, what happened to the almost $1.6 million that was in the harbor's accounts immediately before Katrina? Some worry that the money, which could have been used to clean and restore the marina, seems to have vanished.

As the lakefront fitfully takes its first steps toward recovery, the boating community may take solace in the feeling that Mayor Nagin is at least aware of the problem -- if only because, as has been thoroughly reported, on July 8 he personally visited one of the languishing harbors to board a 53-foot yacht for a "thank you" party for some of his campaign contributors.

One of the first lessons new sailors learn is the importance of adapting to changing conditions. In these post-Katrina times, the boating community has had to navigate many types of uncharted waters.

click to enlarge It's hard to tell that 30,000 pounds of wreckage have been - removed from the marina because so much remains. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • It's hard to tell that 30,000 pounds of wreckage have been removed from the marina because so much remains.
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