NEW ORLEANS -- I spent a few hours today out at City Park, the vast section of the city that was devastated when Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Roughly 90 percent of the 1,300-acre park was under water after the flood. City Park is more than three times larger than Delaware Park in Buffalo, to give you an idea of its size.
Bob Becker, a native of Buffalo and a graduate of UB, is the CEO of City Park. He was running the park when the hurricane hit, and he has been the driving force behind its long, difficult recovery ever since. Another Buffalo native, Susan Taylor, is director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, which is located inside City Park.
I spoke to both the Buffalo natives today to get their perspective on New Orleans' remarkable comeback from the flood in '05. City Park is a living expression of the city's resurgence. Buffalo people should feel a sense of pride that two products of the city are playing such a prominent role in the New Orleans revival.
My story on Becker and Taylor will run on Super Bowl Sunday in the Buffalo News. Here's one of Becker's favorite memories of the time soon after the flood. City Park's golf courses and clubhouse facilities had been destroyed, but some of the waters had receded and the field where the driving range had been was relatively clear of water.
"As a sports guy, you'll love this story," Becker said. "We have a driving range and golf course. So it's all ruined, but the range generates a lot of cash for the park. So in early 2006, I took some staff out and said, 'We have to get this open. This can generate money for us'.
"It was under 8 feet water for almost a month. We took our staff and went out there. We said, 'What do we have to do to get this open?' Well, we have to have golf balls first'. So we walked out onto the driving range and hand-picked golf balls out of the mud.
"Then we went out searching for the baskets. They had floated into other neighborhoods, they were all over the park. So we gathered all the baskets up. We got the balls out of the mud. We brought them back to the driving range. We had pressurized water, so we cleaned off the balls and the baskets. We cleaned off the driving range mats.
"We said, 'OK, we have golf balls and baskets. The mats are clean. The building is destroyed, but we can sell them from outside'. So we brought out a tent and sat under the tent. We said, 'What are going to charge?' We had big baskets and little baskets. Someone said, we can charge $5 for this and $10 for that. I said, 'No, I don't care if it's a large or small, it's $10. That's what we have, if you don't want to pay it, don't pay it.'
"So we hand-wrote a sign and put it out. People started to pour in. It was unbelievable! They were saying, 'Are you open? Are you open? Do you have any golf clubs?' No, we didn't have any clubs or anything like that. 'OK, I'll be back!' Many would leave and come back with golf clubs.
"We were doing this great business. We had probably 100 baskets. People were hitting golf balls and about halfway through, we looked down and had about 20 baskets left. My maintenance director said, 'You know, Bob, we don't have any way to pick up these golf balls. What are we going to do?"
"The golf ball machine that picked them up was destroyed. We looked at each other and said, 'There's going to be a fricking riot.' So right at the end, we grabbed this bullhorn out of my maintenance director's truck. We were almost out of balls. We said, "Hold up, hold up!' We ran out in front of the range where everybody was driving. We said, 'Look, you guys have been enjoying this, but we have no way to pick up these golf balls. You have to help us.'
"So they did. They all laid down their clubs and walked out into the field and picked up golf balls for us. We did that for a couple of weeks until my maintenance director, who was really handy, figured out a way to rig up an old lawnmower that could scoop up balls from the field.
"It showed you how desperate people were to have any kind of recreation at that time."