The span of popular cycling and walking trails along the Mississippi River in the New Orleans metropolitan area is reaching into new territory: down the river into the marshes and plantation country of St. Bernard Parish.
When completed, the parish will have a 6-mile levee-top trail extending from Meraux to St. Bernard State Park, a state park along the river. Construction is expected to start in the coming months.
The trail was on the planning board before Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago, but the storm knocked it off the agenda.
“We had to focus on more serious issues,” said Susan Klees, a St. Bernard bicycle advocate who worked to keep the project alive. “It has been on life support for a long time.”
Permits have been obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the local levee district, and $2.5 million in funding — largely from the U.S. Department of Transportation — has been secured, officials said.
The levee-top trail is part of a bigger vision to create a 3,000-mile-long Mississippi River trail for cyclists and outdoors enthusiasts that stretches from the river’s headwaters in Minnesota to its estuary into the Gulf of Mexico.
Dave Peralta, the parish president, said in time the hope is to tie St. Bernard’s bicycle trails into an expanding network in New Orleans. The French Quarter is about 10 miles upriver from Meraux, where the new trail begins.
For the hurricane-battered locals — some of whom have been hit by severe hurricane flooding even since Katrina flooded nearly the entire parish — the trail represents a bright spot and boost in the area’s quality of life.
“We’re trying to get out of the immediate recovery mode and start looking at the potential for a viable future,” said Ron Chapman, a Nunez Community College history professor and columnist for the St. Bernard Voice, a 124-year-old weekly newspaper. “We have been trapped in the present.”
In recent years New Orleans has seen a flourishing of activity, and many of its play spots — golf courses, boating bayous and playgrounds — have been rebuilt.
Cross the city limits into St. Bernard, and the story is different.
After Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, floodwaters covered almost all of the 4,600 square miles of marsh, farmland and towns that make up St. Bernard. The parish’s 65,000 inhabitants were scattered. Recovery has been slow, and the parish’s population is now at about 43,000. The numbers of businesses and students also are down from pre-storm levels.
But things are looking up.
A public hospital opened in 2012, there’s a new walking path in Chalmette, the parish’s schools are widely praised as some of the state’s best, and a new science center is nearly done in historic Arabi.
Historically, St. Bernard was a rural parish made up of plantations, ranches and fishing hamlets. But it turned industrial in the 20th century as large-scale plants, including a Kaiser aluminum plant, two oil refineries and a Domino’s sugar refinery, moved in.
In the wake of Katrina, the parish wants to diversify its economy and population base — and luring newcomers with better amenities is part of the strategy.
“St. Bernard has to attract more people,” said David Waggoner, a New Orleans architect and planner who has worked extensively on rebuilding plans here.
The parish’s vulnerability to flooding has been reduced, thanks to multibillion-dollar levee works built by the Army Corps of Engineers since Katrina. Still, the parish is close to the Gulf and large areas remain outside the main levee system — making them more exposed to flooding.
The bike trail, then, is being viewed as an important piece in a plan to bring tourism and new dynamism to the parish.
“It will bring economic development,” Klees, the bicycle advocate, said. She thinks that once it is completed, businesses, such as cafes and bed-and-breakfasts, might open along the route.
When completed, the trail will pass by some interesting spots. For instance, folks will be able to see where the Mississippi River levee was dynamited during the Great Flood of 1927 to relieve stress on levees upriver and alleviate panic in New Orleans. The trail also will pass by a charismatic ranch called Docville.
Also from the trail, bikers and walkers will be able to enjoy vistas onto the river and its oceangoing ships, stately moss-covered oak and pecan groves, quiet marsh pastures and out-of-the-way fishing docks.
Along the trail one will also come across Violet, a small place where residents trace their roots to 18th century Spanish-speaking colonists from the Canary Islands — the Islenos. Violet has seen better days. Katrina devastated its old school and church buildings, which are now choked with weeds and dilapidated exteriors.
“It will never be what it was,” said Lorraine McDaniel, a school bus driver whose family has lived here for generations. “The people are gone.”
The trail, though, is bringing hope, she said.
“We have such a nice river batture,” she said, standing in front of her historic home within sight of where the new trail will go atop the levee. “I have a bike, but I don’t ride it much. (The trail) would be a lot safer than the road.”