South Carolina's Weather-Torn State Parks Reopen, "Just in Time for Spring"

Mar 20, 2018

Between the autumns of 2015 and 2017, 47 of South Carolina’s state parks experienced temporary closures due to damages sustained during severe weather events, including the Floods of 2015, Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Irma and the Pinnacle Mountain Wildfire at Table Rock State Park. February marked an important milestone: for the first time since the fall of 2015, every affected park was reopened.

According to Phil Gaines, Director of the S.C. State Parks Service, the frequency and geographic distribution of severe weather events that have affected the parks over the past three years is remarkable.

S.C. State Parks Director Phil Gaines
Credit Olivia Aldridge/SC Public Radio

“It’s very unusual for the entire state to be affected by a disaster. It’s usually, you know, an ice storm in the upstate, or flooding somewhere, or the coastal events during hurricane season. It’s very rare that you have these catastrophic events that impact you statewide,” he said.

For coastal and island parks, recovery has been especially drawn out because of repeat disasters separated by only a year: Hurricanes Matthew and Irma in 2016 and 2017, respectively. This was true for Hunter Island, the most recent park to reopen, and Edisto Beach, which had reopened post-Matthew for just eight days when Irma hit and caused the park to close again.

“The damage was not as severe,” said Gaines of Irma, “but it was just, you know, the psychological part of having to go through all the recovery and the efforts of recovery, and then to be hit once again in the same location with some of the same damages.”

Midlands parks, on the other hand, received the greatest impact from the 2015 floods.

“I don’t think anybody knew what to expect, or that we would get that amount of rainfall in such a short period of time,” said Stacey Jensen, a park interpreter at Sesquicentennial State Park just outside Columbia.

“It was really overwhelming, but in my mind we were gonna get it fixed in a day. And that was probably the hardest part, is it wasn’t something that could be fixed in a day and get back to normal. It was gonna take a long time, and that was hard.”

While Sesquicentennial reopened within several weeks after the initial rain event, the full recovery process has yet to be completed.

After the flood, park workers found all manner of debris had washed into the park—from a man’s necktie wrapped around a tree, to 200 vintage glass soda bottles. Cleaning up the debris was just one element of restoring this park, which was flooded by several feet of water in some areas, especially near the park’s lake. While most of this water eventually receded, certain areas of the park still have standing water because the flow of the park’s streams and waterways was permanently altered by the flood.

“It just kind of reshaped this landscape,” said Jensen. “This area will never be the same.”

These changes aren’t necessarily negative. While the goal for flood-damaged homes and infrastructure might be a return to pre-flood conditions, the goal for parks is often to adapt to the changes brought on by weather events. For instance, when the flood widened a 173-foot chasm around a stream in Sesquicentennial, the park’s staff saw an opportunity to create a new feature: a sparkling, aluminum bridge on one of the park’s popular trails.

The new trail bridge at Sesquicentennial State Park.
Credit Olivia Aldridge/SC Public Radio

Park Manager John Wells said the new trail bridge would eventually be accented by local flora and fauna and would be a major attraction for visitors.

“It’s going to take a year for it to season in and really look like we want it to look. This is actually going to turn into one of the features of the park,” said Wells. “This is actually going to be one of the destinations in the park that people are really going to flock to. It’s just that we’ve got to give it a little time to wear the new off here.”

Gaines, too, is excited about Sesquicentennial's latest progress toward recovery.

“One of the things that we wanted to showcase at Sesqui with this new trail bridge is to take you back into some of those areas that were floodplains, that had damage, so you’ll be able to see some of that quick recovery that we haven’t done as much as Mother Nature has done,” he said.

Jensen and Wells confirmed that the flood actually increased traffic to the park, especially shortly after the flood.

“Everyone wanted to come out to their park and see how bad it had been hit and what had happened. We had a lot of curiosity, so in fact we probably had people coming out to look even when we were closed,” Jensen said.

Park Manager John Wells and Park Interpreter Stacey Jensen at the new Sesquicentennial State Park Boardwalk.
Credit Olivia Aldridge/SC Public Radio

Of course, Sesquicentennial was lucky compared to many parks in the state. After the initial rain event, the park opened relatively quickly, and was able to apply previously awarded grants from the Richland County Conservation Commission to several recovery projects, including a new boardwalk. In contrast, parks like Hunter Island have only recently become accessible again to the public. The hard-earned recovery of those coastal parks made Gaines especially proud to announce that parks were reopened across the board at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Travel last month.

“It was a real celebration to be able to say that, you know, as flowers start to bloom and trees start to get their leaves back, and spring renewal, that parks are open again, and all of our parks are open,” said Gaines. “We’re really looking forward to a great spring with all 47 parks and all their facilities being open, and getting back to so-called ‘normal.’”