For over 160 years, the Southern Yacht Club has looked out on 100 acres of oak-lined parks, boathouses and marinas of New Orleans’ recreational boating hub on Lake Pontchartrain, West End. The massive state-of-the-art clubhouse was rebuilt after the twin cataclysms of fire and water during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, yet today it sits adjacent to a still ravaged 650+ slip Municipal Yacht Harbor. After more than eight years, the marina, which is wholly owned by the City of New Orleans, is trapped in a bureaucratic limbo and still awaiting disbursement of FEMA rebuilding funds.
West End’s complex of marinas, parks, and boat launches are encircled by privately leased boathouses, condo developments, boat yards, chandleries, and a smaller inner marina that have all rebuilt. With the large marina half vacant and unrepaired, many of these businesses are struggling. John Brimer who operates Schubert’s Marine and provides boat repairs and sales, states that since the storm he has lost 54% of his business because of the still unrepaired marina. Even after rebuilding his business, he currently employs only 9 of the 19 skilled tradesmen he had before the storm. “Having Municipal Harbor functioning would mean another 600 boats we would have an opportunity to service, fuel and sell parts to,” he says.
While the issues at West End are complex, including the initial political liability of rebuilding a marina while so many homes, schools, libraries and police stations were devastated, the primary hindrance eventually became the low sum offered by FEMA’s adjusters to the city. President Warner Tureaud of the Municipal Yacht Harbor Management Corporation explains, “FEMA originally did a visual inspection of the marina, but by doing that you’re not going to know of any damage to the concrete piers either below the water or the mud line. We’ve had to hire consultants to investigate any possible damage to these concrete piers and their causation that aren’t visible. That’s where we are now.”
A true recreational jewel and economic engine for the city continues to sit idle while papers are shuffled and study after study refutes FEMA’s rebuilding estimate, all the while the Management Corporation’s funds dwindle. Unable to even temporarily provide water or power to the boat slips because of byzantine FEMA guidelines, the Harbor Board leased out half of the marina’s slips at a seriously reduced rate. This reduced income forced the Harbor Board to consider developing portions of the historic parks at West End, but they received enormous pushback from the residents and have likely tabled these plans.
However, the logjam may finally be coming to an end. In May of this year, FEMA announced an award of $10.1M to the city to repair the marina. While construction has not commenced, it appears that the other five FEMA claims at West End could also be awarded in the near future. Construction on many of these projects is expected to start in early 2014 and will encompass boat ramps, the marina and the other languishing infrastructure.
The golden lining in this long slog for New Orleans’ boaters and the active racing community is that with funding finally coming online, West End has the very real potential to outshine its storied past. The legendary over-the-water seafood restaurants are rebuilding, national regattas have returned and the strong liveaboard presence is alive and well. With direct access to the Gulf of Mexico and what could eventually total a $20M investment into public boating infrastructure, New Orleans is again set to become a major hub of cruising and racing on the Northern Gulf Coast.