JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Seven years ago, when the waters rose in New Orleans on August the 29th, they swamped a way of life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Among the thousands of casualties in that city was a masterpiece, the New Orleans Botanical Garden.
After Katrina, the gardens lay in ruins and the man who gave rebirth to the garden that had grown neglected is Paul Soniat. He's the garden's executive director. He can trace his family back six generations in New Orleans, and we asked him to tell us the story of how he returned to the garden and how he reestablished it.
Paul Soniat, thanks for joining us today.
PAUL SONIAT: Well, thank you for having me.
LYDEN: Would you take us back to 2005? You had been tending this garden for a long time. It had grown neglected. You reestablished it. What did you behold when you returned?
SONIAT: We were real busy the weekend before Katrina. We had a wedding, I think, Friday night and Saturday, and we had one scheduled for Sunday night and I guess the most surreal thing was seeing the two wedding cakes that were there on the table and, by this time, they were a little bit moldy and mildewed and, needless to say, they never got cut for that wedding. The people left before that wedding.
But, when you walked in, all of the tables in the corner of the room were set up with glasses and the little cocktail tables that originally were scattered around the room for families to sit and have drinks, were all lined up with the National Guard eating the MREs right there on the little cocktail rounds.
But I think the thing that I remember most, is that when you walked into that area in the park in, like, the city, it was just this great color that, you know. All of the vegetation was dead and it had this musty look about it, kind of a dead zone and, you know, just trying to comprehend it all at once was a bit too much, so...
LYDEN: Yeah. So you're standing in the middle of this lifeless gray garden and, you know, I am a gardener and I'm traumatized when I lose one plant. You must have lost thousands. What did you decide to do next?
SONIAT: Well, you know, we communicated with some of the people in the garden. We had a little foundation that helped raise money for the garden and the garden is part of New Orleans City Park, which is a state-run facility. And so there was communications with my - the CEO of the park, Bob Becker, and what was going on there. And the truth is the park didn't have any money. The park basically had to operate on self-generated funds.
Luckily, we had a donation from a foundation that we then knew that at least we could offer all of our staff a job if they wanted to come back and work. And that's what we did and we set up almost like a remote camp in one of the buildings in the botanical garden and started working, probably the first week in October.
LYDEN: Did you have volunteers?
SONIAT: We had volunteers from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden come a little bit later, following the Christmas and they were a great help. They helped us redo one of the gardens and individuals - we had donations from garden clubs all over the country, from Denver Botanical Garden, from the New York Botanical Garden. We had a fundraiser. Organizations all over the country - some made cards that raised money to buy our orchids and to replenish our orchid collection.
So it was - you know, and so many people have connections with New Orleans, so you know, when this happened, people wanted to find a way to help. And whether they like gardens or the museum or, you know, a lot of the other organizations in the city experienced the same kind of help from other people.
LYDEN: I understand you had a local foundation who really went to bat for you.
SONIAT: Yeah. That was the Azby Fund and that's a local foundation that - before Katrina, we had on our master plan to expand our conservatory, and they had pledged a million dollars for that over the next three to four years. But, when Katrina hit, they knew that we didn't have the money to recover and rebuild, so they gave us that money up front, so we were able to hire our staff, renovate the buildings, buy new plants. And that was a real, real critical time in that early stage, from September through the following spring.
LYDEN: What was the original intent of the garden in 1936? And how you restored it - because, for a while, it had grown neglected. Right?
SONIAT: Yeah. You know, when it was built originally, that was during the WPA and it was built as a rose garden. It was simply - it was an open garden. It didn't have any fences and it was just a place that everybody, rich or poor, could come and visit because you didn't have to pay an admission and so forth, but the collection of plants weren't that great. And, you know, times change and we did have to put a fence around it and we had to - we wanted to call it a botanical garden and we increased the variety and the selection of plant materials that we grow there. So it's much more than a rose garden now.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking with Paul Soniat. Paul is the director of the New Orleans Botanical Garden.
And so, if I were to visit today, what would I see? How quickly have you been able to restore things?
SONIAT: Actually, I think, if you walked in today, you wouldn't even know that there was a storm. I mean, we replanted our major hedges to redefine the structural elements in the garden. You know, perennials, tropicals - within a season, they - back and growing. And so - yeah. If you walk in today, you wouldn't notice a thing and, right now, it's August and it's hot and the water lilies love this kind of heat and sunlight, so they look beautiful. A lot of different perennials are in bloom in the summer, a lot of salvias. And we have a conservatory with fern collection. A lot of orchids are in bloom right now, also. And our fruit trees are starting to get a little bit bigger with citrus and some of the fruits that will ripen more into the fall.
You know, it's ironic that I started in the garden when I was in my late 20s and, when this happened, it was almost like I was starting again and, actually, I was. You don't often have too many times in life to relive your life, I guess you'd say.
LYDEN: Yeah. Paul, you're a New Orleanian through and through. You've lived on a straight name for your family. Your family came here in the mid-1700s. You've survived this flood and, of course, New Orleans is famous for its music, and you're a musician, too.
SONIAT: Yeah. I play piano, write songs. I have a couple CDs and one right after Katrina and a new CD called "Suddenly," which will be out in a few weeks.
LYDEN: When did you write the song, "Below the Waterline?"
SONIAT: Well, you know, when I started, I guess, writing it when I got back into the city and I guess one of the most dominant visual features of the city at the time was the waterline, because where I was living, uptown, the water - it didn't flood those houses. So there was no waterline, but as you went into the city and parts of the city, you could see exactly where the line was and you know that anything below the line, you had troubles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELOW THE WATERLINE")
SONIAT: (Singing) When the wind stopped blowing, thought we'd made it through another one. Yeah, when the wind stopped blowing, thought I'd be home with the rising sun. Then the waters came on in and it changed everything in just that moment in time.
Just about all of my family lived out in Lakeview, so they all flooded. And I guess it was when I was looking at all of the area out in Lakeview where the lines were so consistent, you know, you could see all through Broadmoor, through Mid-City, through the east, through Lakeview. Everything was probably in the area of seven to eight feet, nine feet above ground - this kind of dark, black line that you'd see, you know. And I just had that image of, you know, below the waterline and the song just kind of grew from that.
LYDEN: Paul Soniat, director of the New Orleans Botanical Garden, it's been a real pleasure.
SONIAT: Well, thank you very much. I enjoyed being here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELOW THE WATERLINE")
SONIAT: (Singing) It's when my life fell below the waterline. It's when my life fell below the waterline and when the water came on in, didn't leave me a thing but trouble on my mind. And when the water came on in and it changed everything in just that moment in time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.