By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — Former Slidell Mayor Ben Morris called the recovery from Hurricane Katrina a “nightmare.”
Current Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan said it was “devastating.”
But both mayors agreed that Katrina did something for Slidell that might have never happened without the hurricane roaring through here in August, 2005.
Following last week’s opening of the new $8 million Slidell Municipal Auditorium, the city has rebuilt virtually all its administrative and recreation buildings, thanks in large part to the federal government.
Public officials agree that Katrina helped provide Slidell with something they otherwise would have probably never been able to accomplish—getting an entirely new city administrative complex, while also rebuilding three other city buildings.
“Sometimes you have to look through the storm clouds to see the silver lining,” Drennan said.
Almost seven years after Katrina blasted her way through Slidell, city officials and residents last week cheered and cried as the Municipal Auditorium was unveiled to the public.
Slidell now enjoys brand new buildings that include the auditorium, the Senior Center, the Rufus Viner Center, and two beautiful city administration buildings that had long been a dream of city officials, but were far too expensive to ever consider.
In the end of it all, a total of $20.9 million in new buildings is now the possession of the City of Slidell. FEMA paid $13.2 million to help the city build them all, while the city put up $6.3 million of the money. The final $1.4 million came from insurance.
FEMA paid for $7 million of the $8 million Auditorium construction, while also paying for $2.4 million of the Senior Center’s $3.1 million cost. Federal authorities paid for $600,000 of the $700,000 needed for the Rufus Viner Center, which opened last week.
Slidell paid its largest share of construction costs for its two new city buildings, that now house most of the city offices, including some new offices that previously had been scattered all over town. The two buildings cost a total of $9.1 million, with FEMA paying $3.2 million and Slidell paying $4.5 million. Insurance paid for the remainder.
“It was certainly a real struggle to bring the city back,” Morris said, as the special guest at the Municipal Auditorium opening last week. “Those were interesting times to say the least.”
Morris was Slidell’s mayor when the storm struck the city, and was largely credited for never letting up on FEMA to pay for much of the repairs. The auditorium was his last fight, with FEMA initially denying the request for federal funds.
But Morris said the key evidence that helped Slidell get $7 million to completely rebuild the city meeting complex was an unknown employee with AT&T, who was filming the rush of water into Olde Towne from a second floor city building.
“All I can say is thanks to whoever that AT&T man was, because that film showed the damage was the rushing waters, and not flood waters that slowly rose,” he said. “When FEMA saw that, they agreed to pay.”
The opening of the Auditorium was the final city project being assisted by FEMA, although Slidell is still seeking millions of dollars more for infrastructure damage.
The Auditorium is built on the same footprint as the old building, but has more room inside, now accommodating a standing room only crowd of 1,201 people. Fixed row seating capacity is 752 and table seating is 595.
After an opening in the foyer, Drennan led the crowd inside for a look and surprised them with Ronnie Kole playing “Amazing Grace” on stage, ending with a hug between the two.
The Auditorium held its first event last Friday night when Friend’s of the Arts hosted “Arts, Camera, Action!” The organization was the group that last met in the Auditorium before it was shut down by the storm.
Drennan called the Auditorium “absolutely amazing” and said the city is working on bringing “name entertainment” to the site in the coming months and years.