Group plants trees in City Park
Advocate staff writer

A group whose mission is to rebuild New Orleans "one block at a time" spent Wednesday covering a lot more ground.

About 70 volunteers, organized by the group 1 Block at a Time, planted approximately 1,000 trees in City Park on Wednesday. The volunteers plan to continue their work today and Friday.

Phil Nugent, founder of 1 Block at a Time, said he felt it was his duty to his ancestors and his heritage to help rebuild the city. Nugent's great-grandfather built his family's home in New Orleans in 1929. In 1999, Nugent, who was born in New Orleans, quit his law practice in Houston and moved his family back to New Orleans.

The area selected for the tree planting consists of 28 acres that were devastated when Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29. The area once had a mile of trails through the wooded area and a variety of trees, which provided food and cover for migratory birds. But after Katrina, "it looks like a bomb hit," Nugent said. Many of the mature trees, different varieties of oaks, were uprooted or mangled and hardly any evidence of the trails exists today.

Nugent had expected to plant about 1,200 trees over three days. But because of the large number of volunteers from within Louisiana and across the country, almost all of the trees were planted the first day, he said. He was expecting another shipment of trees late Wednesday afternoon.

Although the event already is a success, it almost didn't happen. Another group called Hart 4 Humanity had planned to spend the three days cleaning, landscaping, painting and doing other repairs to parks and playgrounds under the New Orleans Recreation Department. That event was canceled.

But volunteers from across the country were already on their way to New Orleans, so Nugent decided to put them to work planting trees. Nugent said he received the OK to go ahead with the tree planting Dec. 21. And as the tree planting is under way, "people are still driving in on their vacation time," Nugent said.

The tree-planting event had the blessing of Tom Campbell, urban forestry program director with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and Rob DeViney, chief operating officer of City Park, Nugent said.

In a letter to Nugent, Campbell wrote that he felt the physical act of replanting would have a positive effect on the community. Nugent agrees. The tree planting did not follow a set pattern. People planted wherever they chose because the area was left to nature before the storm. Trees sprouted wherever acorns fell. During the planting Wednesday, children decided, "This is where I want to come back in 25 years and see my tree," Nugent said. "That's special."

The 1,200 trees represent the approximate number of Louisiana victims from Hurricane Katrina. Half the trees are bald cypress, the state tree of Louisiana, while the other half are live oak species, Nugent said. The trees grew from acorns taken from the St. John Oak, which is planted in front of St. John Cathedral in Lafayette, Nugent said. The St. John Oak is registered with the Live Oak Society and is the third-largest oak in the country, he said.

Some of the volunteers who came from other states to help with the effort said they planned to photograph the park and city so that others in their hometowns realize New Orleans still needs help. Mike Handlin traveled alone from Newark, Del., to take part in the planting. An instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College where Handlin attends helped fund his trip, Handlin said. "I had the time," he said. "I didn't want to just send money. You never know where it's going to go."

Nugent said he is trying to get a message out to the rest of the country. "New Orleans is not passive. All of us are not sitting here waiting on a check," he said. Nugent also had a message for other residents of the city who have not yet returned home: "If they're in Atlanta or Memphis or Houston, they need to come back. It's not perfect, but it's home."

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