Chalmette rebuilds, new center to open

CHALMETTE, La.—As one approaches Chalmette Battlefield, the memories envisioned of the lopsided American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans are overshadowed by another enemy that resulted in the death of more than 1,800 modern-day Americans: Hurricane Katrina.

The battlefield, located in St. Bernard Parish to the southeast of the Lower Ninth Ward that was decimated by the storm, is bordered by one of the levies that were breached during the category five hurricane in 2005.

Click on the video at right to see an audio slide show about Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery restoration work since Hurricane Katrina. The slide show was photographed and prepared by writer Debora Rubi.  

While the damage was not as catastrophic as it was for much of the local community, the historic battlefield suffered substantial damage.

Katrina flooded the battlefield when the nearby levy breached, resulting in the complete ruin of the  park’s visitor center and substantial damage to other structures including the historic Malus-Beauregard House and the Chalmette Monument.

The Louisiana National Guard and U.S. Marines helped secure the area and clean up debris immediately after the storm. The National Park Service helped in caring for damaged trees while restoration experts protected and restored artifacts and evaluated buildings within the battlefield.

The stone monument at Chalmette Battlefield stands behind a chain-link fence during renovation and restoration work following damage from Hurricane Katrina. Work is expected to be completed in fall 2010 (Photos by Debora Rubi). Next below, the levy that protects Chalmette Battlefield from spring high waters of the Mississippi River. Next, the restored Malus-Beauregard House serves at the temporary Visitor Center. Next, headstones of the National Cemetery. Last, a picnic area near the construction site of the new Visitor Center.

“Local attendance bounced back really quickly after the storm since the battlefield was one of the first really big green areas to be cleaned up,” said Kristy Wallisch, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve interpretive ranger and spokesperson. “People would just come out to the park and the battlefield to have picnics.

The Chalmette Monument, surrounded by a wire fence and construction signs this spring, is the first thing one sees upon entering the battlefield space. The foundations of the new half-built visitor center stand near it.

The monument, which was having major restorations and having its mortar repointed when Katrina struck, was damaged by the scaffolding that had been placed on it.

However, the damage was minimal and no substantial repairs were needed after the storm.

“It had a little damage from the scaffolds and the water and wind blowing,” said Wallisch. “But it’s a large piece of stone, really, so it was hard for it to get truly damaged. It’s in good shape and finished up now.”

Almost five years later, the damage is still being corrected by the park. The new visitor center will be two times the size of the original and should be completed by fall 2010.

Once the visitor center is ready, new exhibits about the battle, and its significance for the War of 1812 and the history of Louisiana, will be on display. The visitor center will cost around $4 million and will include two new movies, new computers and new exhibits.

“It was surprising to me some of the structures that weren’t really damaged,” said Wallisch. “The Malus-Beauregard House only needed a little scrubbing. People back when it was built expected the house to be flooded often being so close to the (Mississippi) river.”

The Malus-Beauregard House—originally built in 1836— was flooded by three feet of water and the roof and dormers were severely damaged by storm winds and debris.

The house was restored by the National Park Service. It is open daily and is currently serving as the temporary visitor center while the new visitor center is under construction.

Across the battlefield lies the British flag, representing the troops defeated by General Andrew Jackson. Both the American flag near the monument and the British flag across the battlefield show damage on their flagpoles caused by the water.

“The actual flags are changed at least once a year or every three months, depending on if it’s sunny, so they would have been changed regardless of the storm,” said Wallisch. “The flag posts themselves were a mess initially, but were cleaned up.”

Behind the British flag lies the historic Chalmette National Cemetery. The cemetery, with burials dating to the early 19th century including ex-slaves and soldiers spanning form the Civil War to the Vietnam War, was badly damaged by Katrina and has just recently been reopened to the public.

“Cemeteries never really close to the public but they were by appointment only,” said Wallisch. “Full, no problem access became available in March.”

The damage to the cemetery was pronounced in that the damaged structures were irreplaceable due to their age and historic value.

The most extensive damage was on the vegetation of the cemetery. Forty trees, including seven historic sycamore and live oak trees were uprooted by the storm and had to be removed. The 2,500 feet of brick wall that surrounded the old cemetery was destroyed and won’t be entirely rebuilt until the summer of 2010.

The cemetery markers and headstones were not permanently damaged. Mostly, extensive cleaning was required to get the cemetery back in order after the storm.

The cemetery superintendent’s lodges, built in 1929 now serve as offices. These buildings were flooded into the second floor and the carriage house and maintenance building, also from 1929, were entirely flooded and destroyed. All refurbishment of the superintendent lodges were finalized in the summer of 2009.

Since the cemetery has been reopened, there is little evidence of the natural disaster that struck except for a few still-overturned headstones.

The signs that lined the streets of Saint Bernard Parish announcing the location of Chalmette have not been replaced, leaving the once prominent landmark hidden from site until one is almost entirely upon it.

The path between the battlefield and the cemetery has been closed down as it is being used by the contractors working on the new visitor center. The entrance to the battlefield is overtaken their construction signs and fences, with the monument almost entirely obscured and inaccessible.

On this spring day, the Mississippi River behind Chalmette roared against the shore. It was high, covering much of the shore and creeping up the levy separating the river from the battlefield.

Even so, it is only a small echo of the flood waters that came through with Hurricane Katrina, leaving its mark permanently on the historic landmarks.


If You Go:

Chalmette Battlefield and Cemetery, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
8606 W. St. Bernard Hwy., Chalmette, La. 70043.
Telephone: 506-281-0510

Directions from downtown New Orleans:
Coming from Canal Street turn left onto North Rampart Street. Continue on same street, which will become St. Claude Avenue. Entrance to the battlefield site will be on your right.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Closed during Dec. 25 and Mardi Gras.

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