A congregation of nuns has donated the 25-acre site where their convent once stood to the City of New Orleans to create a park and water management system to help fight flooding. For more than a century, New Orleans has depended on canals and pumps to get rid of storm water. But with half the city's land below sea level, it all has sunk even lower as water was pumped away from the spongy soil.
These days the city is spending $270 million to create spaces for rainwater, such as the Mirabeau water garden on the site provided by the nuns of the Congregation of St. Joseph, who lived there until Hurricane Katrina. The city's also installing underground tanks to temporarily hold storm water, porous pavement and other measures to reduce storm flooding and stress on huge pumps built in the 1910s.
The nuns are leasing the land to the city for $1 a year for the next 100 years, with the condition the land will be developed to help remedy the city's chronic flooding challenges. The nuns have commissioned the design team of David Waggonner and Ramiro Diaz, of Waggonner & Ball, who have been traveling to the Netherlands since 2006 to study the Dutch water management system and figure out how to replicate it in New Orleans.
Their plan for the project, called the Mirabeau Water Garden, is to divert nearly 9 million gallons of storm water from the city's drainage system and allow that water to infiltrate back into the ground, Waggonner said. The park will include a walking path and ponds surrounded by pedestrian walkways and bridges, he said. Sister Joan Laplace, who lived on the site off and on since she was a teenager and up until Katrina hit, said the donation was "humbling" and brought the legacy of the Congregation of St. Joseph full circle. The sisters first arrived in New Orleans from France in 1855. They were initially headed for Natchez, Mississippi, but ended up staying in New Orleans.
Having a park that's not only functional for water management but also beautiful is something the nuns asked Waggonner and his team to consider in their design. There is almost nothing left of the original Mirabeau convent, but a section of the terrazzo floor that included a shield - the emblem of the Congregation of St. Joseph - was saved during demolition. Laplace said she would like the terrazzo shield to be incorporated into the design plan, so that there's something on the site that says, "this was our gift to you, and we're praying for you."