- Associated Press - Friday, February 21, 2014

HOPKINS, S.C. (AP) - After South Carolina’s worst winter storm in a decade, it took rangers an entire day to cut through the fallen trees and limbs blocking the road to the state’s only national park, Congaree National Park southeast of Columbia.

“I’ve never seen an ice storm do damage like that in my life,” Joe Meekins, a park ranger said Friday. “We weren’t expecting quite that damage.”

The ice storm of Feb. 11-13 toppled hundreds of trees and splintered branches, shattering sections of the park’s popular boardwalk and leaving the park’s 20 miles of hiking trails strewn with debris.

A week later, a quarter-mile section of the park’s 2.4-mile boardwalk remains closed and it may be some time until repairs are made, said Duane Michael, the park’s chief ranger who helped Meekins as they cut their way 3 miles into the park after the storm passed.

Congaree has about 20 miles of trails, and rangers still have not been able to get to all of them to assess damage.

“The top priority is to get the boardwalk repaired and safe,” said Michael, adding it may be some weeks until the work is done.

The boardwalk is where most visitors walk to get views of the 26,000-acre park that includes swamps encompassing the largest expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the Southeast. It also has the largest loblolly pine tree in the United States, one as tall as a 16-story building.

Besides the boardwalk, falling trees crushed part of a fence at the park’s maintenance complex, poked a hole in a porch roof at a park building and damaged an air conditioning unit.

“We don’t have a dollar figure to put on it yet,” Michael said. “But how can you actually put a value on what you’re losing from a resource standpoint and aesthetics and how it contributes to the ecosystem?”

Michael has been at the park for four years and says some volunteers have characterized the damage as the worst since Hurricane Hugo crashed through the state almost a quarter-century ago.

Congress established the Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976 and the designation was upgraded to a national park 11 years ago. A national monument preserves at least one nationally significant resource, while a national park is larger and preserves a variety of resources.

Congaree National has also been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a Natural National Landmark.

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