Amusement park reminder of hurricane may soon come down

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(Photo: AP)

The Zydeco Scream roller coaster stands motionless, and so does the Big Easy Ferris Wheel. Scampering rabbits, slithering snakes and lurking alligators are the only visitors to the abandoned Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans. Once it resounded with children’s laughter and the shrieks of passengers on the thrill rides.

Now the only sound is the drone of the cicadas.

The amusement park on the city’s eastern edge is perhaps the most high-profile, lingering and ghostly reminder of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Ever since the levees failed and flooded the city with water in 2005, the park has stood empty, creating a nuisance for neighbors, a target for graffiti artists and an eerie landmark for sightseers.

Now, the city’s mayor says she’s getting close to tearing it all down.

“Right now, I have my sights on the Six Flags site, which we are now running numbers for demolition, really, as I speak,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced in May. She gave no further details on any demolition or redevelopment plans. In response to requests for information, her office released a statement saying an assessment is currently being done to determine the best use for the site, and that the administration is committed to improving the quality of life for residents of New Orleans East.

The park opened in 2000 under the name Jazzland Theme Park, but it went bankrupt in two seasons. Six Flags took over the lease, but then Hurricane Katrina struck, submerging the park and much of the city. The theme park never reopened, and eventually Six Flags went bankrupt. Control of the property went to the Industrial Development Board of the City of New Orleans.

A cracked sign outside reads “Closed for storm,” and a security guard tries to keep people from sneaking inside. Some of the rides are still standing and visible from nearby roadways.

A 2016 analysis commissioned by the board estimated it would cost about $1.3 million to demolish the rides and other infrastructure, such as the Looney Tunes Adventure Area, in the abandoned 162-acre (65.6-hectare) park. And then there’s the question of what to do with the site afterward. Over the years, the city has tried to attract investors to the property but none of the plans have taken off.

The assessment referenced by the mayor’s office was commissioned by the New Orleans Business Alliance for the city and released in June. It envisions turning the site into a destination for learning about climate change, resiliency and water issues, and for family-friendly activities such as excursions to the nearby Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge or zip line courses. The analysis also points out the looming threat of coastal land loss that the region faces from the encroaching waters of the Gulf.

With Katrina’s 14th anniversary approaching, many residents are frustrated it’s taken so long to address the park’s future.

The neighborhood has problems with snakes, alligators and wild hogs coming through, says Almarie Carter, who lives nearby. The security tries to keep people out but she says kids still manage to find a way in. She’d like to see it torn down and have something for neighborhood children built in its place.

Instead, it’s a constant reminder of the city’s darkest hour.

“When I exit off the interstate, it sickens me because it is not attractive at all,” she said.

Another resident, Daren Hubbard, was frustrated with the repeated failed efforts to revitalize the area. Hubbard, who’s lived in the area since 1998, says he remembers when the park was built, and people would come in from nearby cities and neighboring Mississippi to visit.

“When this was up and running it was beautiful. The neighborhood, everything around ... was booming,” he said. Hubbard said he understands that the mayor can’t save everything: “But that’s been neglected too long.”

Cyndi Nguyen represents the neighborhood on City Council. She lives just a half a mile away and drives by the park daily. Her husband used to work there.

“I remember hearing kids playing, laughing,” she said. “Parents having a great time with their children. The area was very vibrant.”

Since the mayor spoke about demolishing the site, Nguyen’s constituents have been calling for more information. Nguyen thinks it’s premature to begin demolition in case some of the remaining infrastructure might be useful to future investors. She points out that the abandoned lot has had a bit of a second life as a movie set. But she’s encouraged by the mayor’s support for developing the area.

In the meantime, the amusement park still attracts visitors curious — and saddened — to see what’s still standing after all these years. Brian Coppolino was part of a church group from northern Ohio on a mission to the New Orleans area to help rebuild houses. They stopped recently to see the site.

“It’s almost overwhelming and just sad,” he said. “We’re seeing firsthand how long it takes to recover.”