Jonathan Cohen admits it is fun to watch the grass being mowed in the middle of Lake Gary at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp.
The flip side, of course, is that the lake has drained to the point where there is grass that needs mowing.
When campers arrive this month, many of them from hurricane-ravaged areas, the two small ponds that inhabit a small part of the lake’s footprint will be a reminder of Hurricane Katrina, but by the summer of 2007 a new lake, with new amenities, will again be the camp’s centerpiece.
“We’re really excited about the project,” Cohen said.
During the hurricane, the camp was refuge for over 400 evacuees. The facility sustained minimal damage, primarily shingles and gutters from roofs. The lake was the major exception — the spillway was damaged by a fallen tree, causing the lake level to drop 15 feet.
As the lake drained, the levee on the northern end deteriorated, making it impossible to just refill the lake. The dam has to be completely rebuilt.
Cohen, the camp’s executive director, said the rebuilding of the lake should begin the day after camp ends in August, and is an opportunity for the camp to use the lake in ways it never has before. For years, there has been a desire to add a waterfront area that would make the lake more than a visual attraction and a venue for canoeing.
Last fall, Cohen said the camp would just rebuild the dam and, because of post-hurricane needs, put off fundraising for the larger project.
Several factors changed that plan. There was an opportunity for the camp to earn $200,000 in matching funds from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation of Springfield, Mass., if the camp raised $400,000. As of late May, the camp raised $900,000, not including the matching funds. Fundraising is continuing for the project.
Also, Cohen said, contractors indicated they had so much business in post-Katrina rebuilding that “they did not want to come twice.” In general, finding contractors continues to be a challenge in the region.
Part of the project will be to improve the clarity of the lake’s water, making it more conducive to swimming. Currently, all swimming is done in the camp’s pool. In a letter being distributed to camp parents this month, Cohen said “While our pool is certainly one of the biggest our campers have ever gone swimming in, it’s still just a pool… swimming in a lake is a whole different experience.”
At one end of the lake, a waterfront will be created, including a beach. There will be an “iceberg,” where campers can climb up one side of the floating attraction and slide down the other side.
The other end of the lake will house a boating area, with kayaks and canoes, including a canoe large enough to hold campers from an entire cabin.
Cohen said the camp’s leadership “has always felt that not having a meaningful waterfront was a weakness. Now, it will be a strength.”
Despite the fallout from Katrina, enrollment at the camp this summer will be the highest ever, Cohen said. There will be over 100 campers from hurricane-stricken areas, especially New Orleans, Lake Charles and the Mississippi coast.
Financial aid is coming from the Habayita scholarship fund, set up by the Foundation for Jewish Camping after the storm.
Though the lake will not be usable this year, the camp will have several new features, including a new creative arts center and digital photography lab. There will also be a new camp radio studio, and camp-wide activities, such as a Color War.
Beyond that, camp will be the similar to previous years. For many of the campers, last summer’s session is the last memory of normal life before Katrina.
“We’re going to take great care of other people’s kids, and give them a wonderful summer experience,” Cohen said.