MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Recovering from a disaster can be measured in many ways. Typically, we hear about the dollars spent to rebuild homes and businesses, or how many projects have been funded to make sure a city or community can provide critical services to its customers. All of these facts and figures are important. They represent hard work, dedication and cooperative efforts of local, state and federal agencies. There are, however, other ways of measuring recovery, and at Bayou La Batre's Zirlott Park, soon the fishing village's recovery from Hurricane Katrina will be measured by the swing of a bat and the toss of a football.
On September 2, 2005, Zirlott Park became something it was never intended to be: an emergency housing park established by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Hurricane Katrina had passed through only three days earlier, rendering much of the housing in the Bayou inhabitable and most of the town's infrastructure in disrepair. Backstops and ball fields became gravel paths and travel trailer pads and soon the site was transformed into a housing park where ultimately 90 or so households called Zirlott their temporary home.
For nine months, Katrina victims moved in and out of Zirlott Park. Eventually city and FEMA officials began to meet to discuss what the next step for the park would be. Would it be feasible to rebuild the park to its former self? Would the residents of the park be able to locate suitable alternatives to live in? These, among other questions, were posed in the grand scheme of the park's future. The last travel trailer left Zirlott Park on July 28, 2006.
As better housing alternatives became available and park residents moved on, FEMA called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess what it would take to return the park to its former self. The task required months of planning and coordination between the city and FEMA, because in the end the true test of whether the park was the Zirlott of old, would be evaluated, not by city or federal officials, but by the boys and girls of Bayou La Batre. "The park is really important to the community as a whole, but really when it comes down to it, it's all about the kids," said Jeff Younce, director of the Bayou La Batre baseball association.
In December 2006, contractors began the restoration work under the guidance of the Corps of Engineers. The plans called for three new baseball fields, complete with lighting and bleachers, and new fencing around the existing football field. "We wanted to restore the park not only to its original look, but also to make sure the new park was representative of FEMA's dedication to recovery in south Alabama," said Robert Ives, director of the Alabama Transitional Recovery Office.
While work was sometimes slowed by bad weather and a few construction changes, by the time the two year mark of Katrina rolled around, the newly laid sod was green and the red Alabama clay fields looked ready for playing.
The first games will not be played till next spring, but short a few touch ups, the park is just about finished. "We hoped to play football this fall, but we wanted to rebuild the concession stand before the first game is played, so the first baseball game will be played in April," said Jeff.
Instead of traveling to Mobile to participate in baseball, softball and football, the kids will be able to play at the new park. That's important, too, because after Hurricane Katrina, a lot of the teams had trouble keeping the rosters full. The traveling costs sometimes became too great and it was hard for families to afford them. "We lost quite a few kids," said Jeff, "but with the new fields our numbers will get better."
In March 2008, when the season begins and the bats begin to swing again, Zirlott Park will mean a lot to...