- Associated Press - Thursday, October 27, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina legislators have put the brakes on requests to “fast-track” repairs to two beach-front parks ravaged by Hurricane Matthew, saying the state’s tourism agency needs a plan addressing all its parks.

A legislative panel this week approved the engineering phase of rebuilding Edisto Beach and Hunting Island parks, located in Colleton and Beaufort counties, respectively.

The Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism wanted permission for the entire construction process, estimated to cost $3.5 million combined, with federal emergency aid covering 75 percent.

But lawmakers want to make sure parks in their districts get attention, too.

Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, noted Poinsett State Park near Wedgefield was also damaged.

“While we do have to prioritize parks that attract the most people,” he said, Poinsett brings tourists to Sumter County, and the agency should take advantage of the 75 percent federal match to fix whatever parks are eligible.

Eighteen parks were closed at the height of the storm. At most, the damage was due to downed trees and other debris. So far, the agency has issued $833,000 in refunds, mostly for coastal campground reservations.

With Huntington Beach State Park near Murrells Inlet set to reopen Friday, only Edisto and Hunting Island remain closed.

Those two suffered the most damage, and admissions and camping fees they generate help pay for others not as well attended, said parks director Phil Gaines.

At Pointsett, he said, only trails are still closed, and that’s “manageable.”

“Hunting and Edisto are not manageable, and we need to move quickly,” Gaines told the Joint Bond Review Committee. “These two parks were literally devastated. When you walk onto Hunting Island, it’s unrecognizable.”

According to the agency, the beach-front campgrounds at Edisto and Hunting Island attract 90,000 and 135,000 visitors respectively every year. The agency had hoped to complete work at Edisto by April and Hunting Island by August.

Approval of only the first phase “takes us off the fast track,” said agency spokeswoman Dawn Dawson-House, though she couldn’t say how much it might slow repairs: “It will extend the timeline. We just don’t know by how much.”

At Edisto, proposed work includes replacing electric and plumbing to 64 campsites, replacing septic tank systems, repairing roads, and repairing restroom and shower facilities. A 9-foot tidal surge created even more damage at Hunting Island, where the resulting erosion requires restrooms and shower facilities to be demolished and rebuilt on higher ground. Other work will include replacing utilities to 89 campsites and rebuilding beach-access walkways.

The panel told agency officials to develop a statewide plan and a budget request based on engineering designs. Legislators even suggested making Hunting Island’s facilities bigger, since demolition is required anyway.

“I understand the urgency of getting the parks open,” said Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. “Come back with a complete picture. Maybe you want to enhance Hunting Island. We want to help you.”

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