By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
First of Four in a Series
ON AUG. 26, 2017, a Saturday, Hurricane Harvey was causing a lot of concern at Huntsville State Park. After all, the on-again, off-again storm had not really formed into its monster category 4 self until just before it tore into the Gulf Coast at Rockport, Corpus Christie, Port Aransas and Aransas Pass.
Listening to forecasters speculate about whether Harvey would move inland or turn north, retain strength or fade quickly, Park Superintendent Reagan Faught really had no idea what to expect.
For Faught and his staff, that probably started to change that night.
“I guess my ‘uh-oh moment’ was when I realized we were going to have wind and rain coming, and I knew we might have to evacuate the park,” he recalled last week from his Region Five office in Rockport. Faught now is in charge of cleaning up Coastal Bend parks battered by Harvey.
By early Sunday morning Harvey was in Houston, earning national headlines as it swamped the Bayou City. It was pretty obvious something was about to happen in Walker County.
By Sunday night, the park had been swamped. Trees were coming down.
“We had been watching since it made landfall in the Coastal Bend and my first concern was wind. Our staff does a lot of tree work, but I had twice brought in contractors to take out a lot of dangerous trees. Just before Harvey we had spent $40,000 on tree removal so we were prepared,” he said. He wasn’t anticipating a hurricane, just normal wind and rain because “it’s East Texas and we get wind and rain.”
But, when Harvey hit Huntsville there wasn’t much wind. What there was, though, was water. During Harvey the park got 33 inches of rain, with 16 of those inches falling in one 24-hour period. The park is filled with top-heavy trees. When the ground gets saturated some root systems don’t go deep enough to support the weight and the tree comes down.
Starting Sunday night park radios were crackling with reports of trees coming down, some across Park Road 40 and interior roads, some in campgrounds. No one would know until days later that a lot came down out on the trails. Nor would they know that some creeks and ravines had become roaring rivers, tearing away foot bridges.
“We decided to evacuate. We said we wanted everyone out by 10 a.m. Monday morning,” Faught recalled. “We had a lot of campers who decided not to wait until then. They wanted to leave. But, we had trees down along roads. I could see lights of campers stopped out on Park Road. I stayed up all night with a chain saw clearing trees.”
The Immediate Aftermath
By the time Harvey finally moved out, none of the staff really had a handle on the extent of the damage. That would come later. The boat house, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, had three feet of water in it. The historic Raven Lodge, also a CCC project, had water up to the door sills but escaped flooding.
Faught first ordered staff to take care of any personal losses they might have had.
“Fortunately, our staff did not suffer major losses at their homes. Some had trees down, a road washed out. The well-being of staff was my first concern. I wanted them to take care of their issues and families before they dealt with park issues.”
Faught’s first concern was securing the park from a safety point. He knew from what little he could see that he would find serious damage out in the park, but it was more than a week before he hit the trails. When he did the final inventory of major trees down the total pushed 80, not counting large limbs.
The first goal was to get the core park – campgrounds, close-in trails, Lake Raven, picnic areas, interpretive center – open first. Faught realized to do that would take time “so we decided to remain closed for four to six weeks and had told our reservations system not to take reservations and let those who had them know we were closed.”
In addition to cost inflicted through damage, the parks took a hit over those weeks from lost revenue, but damage was so extensive there was no way visitors and crews could co-exist safely.
“When you are dealing with core safety issues, things essential to saving the park, you just need to let the water go down, get a good night’s rest and then see what you have ahead of you. We were concerned about hazards. Were there any live electrical lines out there? We had powers crews come out,” he said.
Staffers began chain-sawing trees, but they weren’t alone. Region 6, based in Tyler, sent chain saw crews down, along with wood chippers.
Ted Pick Jr. visited Huntsville State Park in early Spring from his post as interpretive ranger at the Hueco Tanks State Parks and Historic Park in the Chihuahuan Desert between El Paso and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. After four years the Michigan native was looking for woods that would remind him of home. Huntsville fit the bill so he applied.
He got a bit of a shock when he showed up for work, the day after Harvey let up.
“I had dropped my stuff off Aug. 15 and gone over to San Antonio,” he remembered last week. “By the time I got over here to start work, Harvey had hit.”
His first reaction when he drove in? “I was glad it wasn’t worse.”
But it was bad enough. Huntsville State Park has 22 miles of trails. They were all damaged to some degree. When the park opened, only a short, close-in trail could be hiked. While Pick had been hired as interpretive ranger, much of his time the first few months went to trail work.
“I was new. I didn’t even know where the trails led so I had to learn them first. I had to determine which ones needed attention first,” Pick said. Faught had set a repair/rebuild schedule based on late Winter and Spring events and that set priorities.
Students from Sam Houston State University reached out to see if they could help and Pick ended up coordinating several volunteers who came to the park throughout the Fall, Winter and Spring. Runners and cyclists who use the trails for events sent groups in to help. Other organizations pitched in.
A lot of the heavy duty chain-sawing fell to staff. The Friends of the Huntsville State park created a carpentry crew that over several months rebuilt damaged boardwalks and bridges. Some had to be taken almost down and rebuilt. That involved hauling loads of lumber, concrete mix and other supplies into the woods.
The Friends of the Park also kicked in with money and material, including gravel to fill some washouts. The group purchased a dozen heavy duty “loppers” for volunteers to use on trail maintenance.
Campground hosts took on extra duties hauling gravel in all-terrain vehicles and doing major trail work. Trail markers also had to be replaced.
By late Fall, there was some sense of normalcy returning. Peck was able to focus on his interpretive duties. Campgrounds filled up; more trails were open than closed. Faught was proud of the effort.
“We were surprised that when we reopened, even with a lot of trails closed, that visitors said they couldn’t see signs of damage. We could see it, because we knew the park, but they couldn’t,”
Pick said as of this month, almost all of the 22 trail miles are open.
“There is one small washout area and that’s about it,” he said. “We are back to doing most of the trail work with our own staff. It’s been Summer, it’s been hot and Sam Houston was out of school. Now they are back in and there are some students who want to come out, and we will have things for them to do.”
The good news is that in spite of being closed, park visits finished strong for the last fiscal year. Because of its proximity to Greater Houston, the local park has more visits than any park in the state. On busy weekends, there are lines from the check-in station out to the I-45 access road. The park has to be closed at some point on those weekends, but it’s because it’s overflowing with people, not water.
Part 2 – For David Landmann and his wife, Connie, their move to Elkins Lake began with a stop at Huntsville State Park. Things did not go as planned thanks to Harvey.
Part 3 – Huntsville City
Part 4 – Elkins Lake
Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or 936-293-0293.