The Nature Center in eastern New Orleans has been off-limits since it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. photo: Sabrina Wilson
The Nature Center in eastern New Orleans has been off-limits since it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Sabrina Wilson, WVUE-TV

Time’s up, Audubon.

That’s the message the federal government is delivering to the Audubon Commission for failing to spend $7.6 million in federal dollars for restoration of the Louisiana Nature Center. An inspector general’s report recommends that the feds cancel the funding.

The nature center, in eastern New Orleans, adjacent to Joe W. Brown Memorial Park, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. More than seven years later, the park has reopened, but not the nature center.

The recommendation that the money be withheld — contained in a Jan. 25 report issued by the Department of Homeland Security — comes at a time when residents and public officials in eastern New Orleans are increasingly frustrated by Audubon’s failure to act. The money in question was part of a $12.3 million commitment from FEMA, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s a mystery and one that needs to be resolved quickly — why they haven’t used the money,” said Sylvia Scineaux-Richard, who is president of the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission.

“If they’ve got the money, they should start turning dirt and begin construction,” said state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, who lives near the nature center.

Up until Katrina, the nature center, while less well known than Audubon’s zoo, aquarium, insectarium and other assets, was a delight to area residents and school kids bused in from around the region. The center offered nature walks over wetlands, zoo-like exhibits, and close contact with animals handled and discussed by staff members. It opened in 1980 and was taken over by Audubon in 2001.

In recommending that FEMA disallow $7.6 of its initial pledge, the inspector general’s report notes that the nature center is on land owned by the city of New Orleans, not the commission — meaning that Audubon doesn’t have the legal right to bill the government for the recovery work and related improvements.

“Of the $12.3 million FEMA approved for the Commission, $7.6 million was for 29 projects at the Center. Because the Commission is not legally responsible for making repairs to the Center, it is not the eligible applicant for these 29 projects,” the report said.

The bigger problem may be that Audubon has yet to begin work on 20 of the 29 projects, according to the report. Audubon has repeatedly won FEMA’s permission to delay the start of its work.

The projects include nearly $2 million for an interpretive center, nearly $900,000 for what is being called a “Science Building,” nearly $800,000 for an “Education Building,” $750,000 for an “Astronomy Center” and $700,000 for a new “Boardwalk.”

The report recommends that FEMA pull the funding for any project that can’t start within six months and be completed 18 months later.  The report also faults FEMA for poor management of the project. A FEMA spokesman declined to comment on the report Wednesday, saying the agency has up to 90 days to respond to it.

The nature center is part of a $25 million master plan for Joe W. Brown Memorial Park, according to a joint statement issued by the city and the Audubon Nature Institute in response to questions from The Lens. To solve the ownership issue, either the property title will be transferred to the commission or the project worksheets will be transferred to the city, the statement said, vowing that the park will be refurbished in full, beginning this summer.

“At the end of the day, Joe W. Brown Memorial Park and the Audubon Nature Center in it will be completely revitalized for the residents and children of New Orleans East to enjoy,” the statement said.

It went on to say that Audubon was “a full partner at the table” with the city and FEMA during planning for the park.

One required step that could further delay the process is the need to apply for a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett. He added that last March, the Corps issued a permit to remove Chinese tallow trees that have taken root since Katrina and to plant bottomland hardwood trees.

At a meeting with community groups in November, architects said work on the nature center was about to begin. Today’s statement from the city and Audubon leaves unclear why the delay has been so protracted.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, neither the city nor the Audubon Nature Institute provided someone to discuss the issue. (The Audubon Commission, a public body, contracts with the Audubon Nature Institute, a private entity, to manage its facilities.)

While work on the nature center has languished, the restoration of Joe W. Brown Park has moved ahead. Improvements include a new football field, gymnasium, swimming pool and facilities for track and field events.

“Then we look next door and the nature center lies in ruins,” said Tangee Wall, executive director of the Friends of Joe W. Brown Memorial Park and the Louisiana Nature Center. “We would like to see the whole area restored. We want them to work vigorously on the clean-up.”

So does Restore the Earth Foundation, a New York-based non-profit that in 2010 donated 10,000 bottomland hardwoods to be planted at the nature center to replace those lost from Katrina. Only 3,000 of the trees have been planted so far, the group said.

“It’s a valuable wetlands site that Audubon is sitting on,” said P.J. Marshall, the group’s executive director for development. “It’s an incredibly valuable asset for the city of New Orleans. A large number of folks are aware that it hasn’t been restored and are frustrated.”

Groups assisting the on-going recovery of New Orleans have been sending volunteers to work at the nature center.

“We have been planting trees, clearing walking paths, planting bottomland hardwood trees and removing invasive plants and trees as part of the wetlands revitalization effort,” said Thom Pepper, executive director of Common Ground Relief, a New Orleans-based non-profit.

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana sent 330 volunteers to the nature center from 2008 to 2010 to plant native trees, such as bald cypress and Tupelo, said Scott Madere, the group’s spokesman.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....