Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Parks and Recreation Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Parks and Recreation Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina

Article excerpt

Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast the morning of Aug. 29, cutting a destructive swath through the South.

Katrina flattened much of the coast-line in Mississippi and Louisiana and damaged parts of Alabama. It also breached New Orleans' levee system, sending a 25-foot storm surge flooding into the Big Easy.

While hundreds of thousands of displaced people are rooting themselves in new areas around the country, the roots they left behind are all but gone, along with the area's park and recreational facilities.

"The state of parks and recreation right now on the Gulf Coast is zero," says Ramie Ford, director of the Jackson, Miss., park and recreation department. "Most all of it, if not all of it, has 100 percent been destroyed."

His city has almost doubled in size from Gulf Coast evacuees, so Ford has had to serve as the ad hoc communication source for many of the displaced people. His department has also spent all of its time dedicated to the relief effort for the first seven days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Based on his conversations with people from coastal cities such as Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs, "There's not a police building left, there's not a fire station left, there's not a community center left, there's not a house left--it's all just piles of rubble," Ford recalls.

Ford's department has used its facilities for shelters and has given resources to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross and other relief agencies despite having no power or communication systems of its own for almost a week. Ford estimates his own department's parks and facilities have incurred $600,000 worth of damage due to fallen trees, strewn buildings and collapsing roofs, and it is located about 160 miles away from where Katrina made landfall.

"We haven't even focused on what our needs are yet. Honestly, we've been trying to focus on making sure our citizenry here in Jackson gets back power," Ford says, adding that his department is also focusing on caring for the evacuees "just like they're citizens of ours."

Further south, Baton Rouge, La., is in the same predicament, with its city doubling in size with evacuees and its resources stretched among local, regional, state and federal groups.

The East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission (BREC) has been involved with recovery efforts from the beginning, and has offered its facilities to FEMA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives divisions of the federal government. Agents are using 229 acres of parkland, 30 percent of its available resources and more than 70 of its employees.

"There's just meetings after meetings to try to get everything lined up as to what needs to be done and then evaluated as to how it's going," says BREC Director of Recreation Bert Neal.

While Neal has not heard from many of his counterparts in New Orleans, he estimates that "Every park that they have is underwater--if not underwater, it's been damaged," he says. "When 80 percent of your town is underwater, it's catastrophic to the recreation department."

Neal suspects any of the intact playground equipment that is metal or has metal fasteners will need to be completely replaced due to saltwater damage. "Saltwater ... it's an undetected cancer on metal. It will actually rust them in two," he says.

Bob Becker, CEO of City Park in New Orleans, was able to get out of the area before the hurricane hit, but is not sure he will have a park to return to once he is allowed back into the city. The 1,300-acre park is one of the 10 largest urban parks in the U.S., and houses a football stadium, amusement park, museum of art, botanical gardens, horse stables and athletic fields.

It also has the largest collection of mature live oaks in the world that may not survive the flooded conditions in New Orleans. …

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