Sandy Rosenthal could barely believe it when a resident of the Filmore Gardens neighborhood called to tell her that a vacant lot at the exact site of the London Avenue canal eastbank levee breach was available for leasing.
“I never would have known about it if it weren’t for the relationships that have been built since the storm,” said the founder and director of Levees.org, the nonprofit committed to ensuring that the nation understands the engineering failures that caused New Orleans to flood. “We weren’t sure how to proceed at first, but then we developed a plan.”
The plan, in the process of being enacted, is to build an open-air exhibit that includes a 90-foot-long pavilion lined with educational panels explaining the many sources of floodwaters that filled the city 10 years ago.
Rosenthal ticks them off: “The London Avenue canal, the Orleans canal, the 17th Street canal, the Industrial Canal, MR-GO and the levee failures in New Orleans East. There was not just one reason — there were so many.”
Accompanying the pavilion is a rain garden, a key component designed for beauty but also to remind residents of the urgent need to manage storm water.
“The rain garden will hold water and use it to nurture the plants that will be installed, rather than sending it directly to the city’s drainage system,” Rosenthal said. She embraces contemporary thinking that water retention is desirable for relieving stress on the city’s aging drainage infrastructure as well as for replenishing the area’s sinking water table.
The lot at 5000 Warrington Drive that Levees.org has leased was made available to the group via “Growing Green,” an initiative of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. The program aims to encourage the public “to engage in general greening and urban agriculture projects” which meet the objectives of improving neighborhood stability, fostering neighborhood safety and sustainability, promoting a general sense of community, and/or making fresh produce available. The leases cost just $250 per year.
“We started raising funds a year ago and have been able to do it all with private donations,” Rosenthal said. “I think people see it as a fitting way to memorialize the event and — painful though it is — preserve its history.”
Architects Scott and Carrie Bernhard, of the Lime Agency for Sustainable Hot/Humid Design, devised the plan for the pavilion, and Master Gardener Calla Victoria designed the rain garden. The six educational panels were developed and produced by Carol Pequot of D and C Enterprises.
Levees.org has invited the public to put some sweat equity into the exhibit and garden by wielding shovels and pitchforks on two Saturdays in June.
“Saturday (today, June 20) we need volunteers to help us prepare the soil in the rain garden for planting, and also to grade it, then next Saturday (June 27), we need volunteers to install the plants that Calla has selected for the garden,” Rosenthal said.
The selections include many familiar plants such as Louisiana irises, swamp milkweed, blue rush and lizard’s tail. Some plants have been purchased, but others were donated to the cause by outfits including Home Depot, American Aquatic Gardens, Gomez Pine Straw and Sunny Sod. Rosarian Peggy Martin plans to donate a Peggy Martin rose — a survivor of the St. Bernard Parish flood — to serve as a focal point.
A subtle but important element of the garden is its courtyard, paved in yellow brick.
“Remember the image of the house that was swept off its foundation, turned around 180 degrees, then deposited in the middle of the street? Well, this is the lot where it was located and the courtyard outlines the footprint of where it stood,” she said. “The house was yellow brick, so that’s why we used it in the courtyard. And while we were excavating, we found three bricks from the house and are incorporating them.”
Rosenthal advises volunteers to bring work gloves, tools and a folding chair. A ribbon cutting will be scheduled in the next few weeks.