Cover Story: Belle of the bayou

Even when broken into smaller chunks, the desolation left in the wake of the largest hurricane in history is sobering. Take, for example, one small portion of the city’s green spaces, New Orleans City Park. Two thousand trees, every piece of equipment, three golf courses, the entire New Orleans Botanical Garden, 122 buildings and 237 employee layoffs were the park’s sacrifices after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in August 2005.

The 150-year-old public park is the crown jewel of the city’s municipal parks. Comprising 1,300 acres, it is one of the 10 largest urban parks in the United States and home to the largest collection of mature live oak trees in the world, including some more than 800 years old. While the land City Park inhabits is owned by the City of New Orleans, it functions as a nonprofit organization – with some crucial, yet limited, help from the state government – raising funds from golf and tennis fees, amusement park admissions, catering, weddings and donations.

After Katrina, 90 percent of the park was under one to 8 feet of water. Worse, saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico killed or damaged most of the grass including the golf courses and Botanical Garden. Today, “Almost everything in the Botanical Garden is newly planted,” says John Hopper, chief development officer, City Park. And the effort to restore the park and its grounds to its pre-storm glory is on-going. In fact, many of the landscapers and designers intimately involved with the rebirth of City Park feel they will ultimately improve the park’s grounds while paying homage to it and the city’s rich cultural heritage.

It’s worth noting that a big part of the park’s recovery has been thanks to the resilience and dedication of the people of New Orleans. As of June 30, 2007, park officials documented 12,000 volunteers working 64,000 hours to restore the park. In monetary terms, that’s $1.2 million of free labor – the equivalent of 31 full-time employees. And it’s been a blessing: Before Katrina, the park was budgeted for about $10.8 million per year. For 2007-08 fiscal year the park is budgeted at $7 million, and employee numbers have slowly increased to 46.

The not-so-perfect storm
Going forward, Hopper’s positive outlook for the future of City Park is apparent. “None of the live oaks from the old grove were lost – just a lot of limbs,” he says. “The Botanical Garden was the first thing to recover because the Azby Fund (a local foundation and long-time supporter of City Park) redirected an existing $1 million pledge to replant and open the garden. We were able to hold the annual Celebration in the Oaks as scheduled in December 2005 – less than four months after the storm hit.”

Since most of the plants and shrubs had to be removed from the garden, the park took advantage of the “clean slate” to upgrade the park’s irrigation, electrical and drainage systems – something they couldn’t do if the plants were alive and growing. New benches and picnic tables have been installed for the public to enjoy.

In addition to private funds, the Louisiana State Legislature appropriated $1 million for the reforestation of City Park. The park board is formulating a spending plan, but portions of the money are already earmarked for inventory, preventive pruning, an organized plant schedule and future tree monitoring.

“It has been to our benefit to be operated and partially funded by the state, because the city is much poorer right now,” Hopper explains.

City Park sustained $43 million in damages related to Hurricane Katrina, but the park has since raised $20 million through a mix of private donors and public entities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is completing $10 million in approved repairs.
Moving out and moving on

Immediately after the storm the park was impassable, Becker explains. The Army Corps of Engineers worked through FEMA to help clear the park of trees and limbs. Cypresses, live oaks and pines were some of the 2,000 felled trees. Being good stewards of the environment, Becker’s team decided to recycle the devastated trees whenever possible. As a result, felled cypress trees were taken to a lumber mill on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain for processing and will be used to construct the lobby of the new administration building on park grounds. Five hundred new trees have been planted – many of them sponsored by donors.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Museum of Art which sits at the south entrance of its grounds. Recently the park board decided the museum needed an attractive entrance to help attract visitors. The park contracted with Carlos Cashio, principal architect with Cashio, Cochran, landscape architects in New Orleans, and Ted Anthony, owner of Anthony’s Landscaping in Metarie, Louisiana. After consultation, Cashio and Anthony’s plan called for the installation of 130 crepe myrtles and 40 live oaks to line the entryway and impart a feel of old New Orleans to visitors.

The crepe myrtles, planted in June, are growing very well, Hopper reports. It has been decided in the meantime that Indian Hawthorne will be planted at the base of the crepe myrtles to add a splash of color to the museum walkway. Because of the South’s extreme heat this summer, an irrigation service will provide water service for one year for the newly planted trees to insure their roots systems are well-established and the plants will eventually be able to survive on their own.

“Rotary International, the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana each paid one-third of the cost to landscape the lawn entrance,” Hopper notes. “It is a fine example of how good private partnerships can work – even if they take a little longer to come to fruition.”

In addition to the tree loss, salt floodwaters killed everything along the shorelines of the bayous running through the park. City Park is working in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Louisiana State University to replant the shoreline with bullrush and other native plants. They hope to create a healthier ecosystem to ease erosion along the shoreline. This is especially important since the park pumps water from Bayou St. John to reduce salinity in the water used for irrigation.

According to Hopper, one of the biggest challenges has been maintaining the park with a significantly smaller staff. Where there used to be 11 employees in the maintenance department, there are now only five. “By the time we cut one side of the park, it’s time to cut another side,” laments City Park employee Sylvester Boutin. “After Katrina, the staff got smaller but the park sure didn’t.”

Vision for the 21st century – 300 years and counting

In March 2005 the Board of Commissioners of the City Park Association adopted a new master plan for the park. The plan details what the park wants to accomplish by 2018 – the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans.

According to the plan, the goal is to “renovate the existing park and infrastructure and add cultural and educational experiences.” New donations to the park will allow proper repairs and upgrades to be made while also implementing portions of the park’s master plan.

The five themes included in the master plan are: expanded recreational opportunities, strong sense of community, integrated natural and functional systems, distinctive identity and financial self-sufficiency.

Throughout the struggle to get back on its feet, thousands of people have offered their services and time to ensure City Park is restored to the beautiful, thriving public space it once was.

“We don’t want to be in a recovery stage forever,” says Bob Becker, CEO of New Orleans City Park. “We want to move on.”

Technology in the nick of time
Audubon Nature Institute uses GPS to keep track of trees

Though the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans did not sustain flood damage, at least 1,000 trees were lost during and after Hurricane Katrina. There are currently more than 3,000 trees on the institute’s property and Daniel Illg has the perfect system to keep track of them.

Illg, tree supervisor for the horticulture and aboriculture department at Audubon Zoo, says that the institute invested in a GPS-based tree monitoring system before the 2005 hurricane. Subsequently, he was able to pinpoint which trees were damaged or destroyed by the storm, and can now replant either similar tree species or a new variety in those empty spaces.

“We have updated the computerized tree inventory to show the condition of each remaining tree, including their corresponding GPS coordinate and number,” Illg explains. “Currently, 150 to 200 trees have been replanted through federal grants and private fundraising and donations.”

At press time, close to 90 percent of the landscape, excluding trees, have been recovered including new planting beds and new designs. The felled live oak branches have been used to feed some of the zoo animals, while the larger portions of trees have either been chipped into mulch or used for animal bedding material.

Throughout the park and zoo, there are signs of tree damage left by the storm. The oldest live oak tree in the zoo, the more than 200-year-old “Martha Washington,” is about to die, and a lot of willows were lost in the swampy areas of the zoo.

“The misting system in the Jaguar Jungle saved the bamboo growing there because they were able to produce new shoots very quickly,” Illg notes.

Because the park is a public space, plenty of visitors and New Orleans residents take pride in helping the institute watch out for felled or damaged trees within the park. Illg says the hardest part of his job is trying to explain to someone that what looks like a healthy tree may really be diseased and dying, and ultimately, need to be cut down.

“Citizens are interested and will watch tree removals and plant installations,” Illg says. “We have to make sure that everything we do is done safely.”

How you can help
To volunteer your time or services to New Orleans City Park, or to adopt an area of the park, visit or call (504) 482-4888.

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