Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 3, 2013
For those who meant to spend a sunny summer day at Morrow Mountain State Park, June 13 turned into a nightmarish experience.
Late that afternoon officials at the Stanly County park received warnings of high winds and severe storms. They informed park visitors and advised campers to shelter in bath houses should the weather sour. An hour later, a storm known as a microburst blew through the park and stranded campers, visitors and park employees for hours.
The storm caused massive amounts of damage and closed Morrow Mountain to the public indefinitely.
Josh Copeland was working his summer job as a lifeguard at the park’s pool when the storm came up. The clouds came in over the horizon thick and black. He said none of the employees heard any thunder or saw any lighting, but the pool cleared out in minutes. Swimmers saw the sky and decided not to test the weather.
Copeland said the lifeguards were allowed to leave early and he was on his way out of the park when the rain hit. He reached the front gate of the park when a tree fell across the road, blocking his way out.
Copeland turned his car around to seek shelter in one of the park buildings — but he didn’t get far. Another tree fell across the road, trapping Copeland and another car in the open.
Copeland sheltered in his car for the next 20 minutes and said he told the visitors to stay in their car and tried to stay calm himself.
Park Superintendent Greg Schneider was driving through the campground when the storm hit. He took his own advice and sheltered in a bath house with campers. The storm brought torrential rains, hail and winds up to 70 mph but only lasted about 20 minutes. When Schneider and the campers emerged from their shelter, a landscape reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic wasteland greeted them.
“It was like pick-up sticks,” Schneider said.
Trees were flattened throughout the area. Some had been torn up out of the ground, roots and all. Others had branches and canopies torn off and were left standing like giant spears. Even the metal fire rings from the campsites were torn and twisted out of the ground.
“There were hundreds of trees down — we couldn’t move,” Schneider said.
With all the roads blocked by storm debris, Schneider began the long wait. He and a visitor who volunteered to play the Good Samaritan visited each camping loop to make sure no one was injured or missing.
Miraculously, no one was.
Others in the park were trapped, but staff managed to get word to local emergency responders. And if employees had a saw on them, they used it to begin cutting themselves and park visitors out. Schneider said it took about five hours for search and rescue crews to cut paths to everyone.
Copeland was lucky to be one of the first they reached.
Park employees started cleaning up the day after the storm. The damage was incredible. Trees had fallen in every section of the park, and many had torn up septic or water lines. Schneider said that the first several days of clean-up were spent removing private vehicles and campers.
Every staff member the park has on hand is working hard at cleaning things up, from clerks and office workers to inventory biologists. Copeland signed up for an easy summer lifeguarding job at the pool. Now he works 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. operating a wood chipper.
Employees and equipment are on loan from other state parks and the work is aided by volunteers, local fire crews and anyone eager to lend a helping hand. For the moment, the effort is being funded by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.
But the going is slow. Workers managed to clear away a few sections, like the boat docks and the pool, along with eight tenths of a mile of trail. The park has 34 miles of trail, all told. Crews have been cleaning for weeks. Schneider said it will take months.
Meanwhile, the park is losing revenue. Normally, Schneider said, Morrow Mountain gets 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year — many of them coming during the summer months. With no official opening date, the park is losing money, fast.
“I just gotta get it safe before I let the public in,” Schneider said.
While most of the damage happened within the first five minutes of the storm, new trees are falling every day. Hanging limbs, torn off and partially caught by other branches, teeter 50 feet off the ground and could drop at any moment. Septic and water lines still need to be repaired and some roads are still impassable.
Until Schneider has determined that main roads and areas are clear and safe, a park employee stands watch at the gate, rain or shine, to tell would-be visitors the park is still not ready for summer.
Rebecca Rider is a Catawba College senior and an intern at the Salisbury Post.