Cypress Gardens will be a ‘vastly improved park
Berkeley County attraction set to reopen at the end of the summer
In October 2015, South Carolina saw a historic natural disaster. Spurred by Hurricane Joaquin, some areas of the Lowcountry and the Midlands saw rainfall totals well over 20 inches. Streets in the Charleston and Columbia areas were flooded much worse than usual, the National Guard was deployed, over 20 people died, and Governor Nikki Haley referred to it as a “1000-year flood.”
Fortunately, in time, most of the state recovered.
Cypress Gardens was one of the exceptions. In the months following the deadly weather disaster, the popular Berkeley County tourist attraction only seemed to sink into deeper waters. Facilities were closed to the public and, by the summer of 2016, the site owners concluded that Cypress Gardens would remain closed for another two years.
It was a spot-on prediction, because the popular destination for field trips, tourists, and naturalists is finally gearing up for their reopening near the end of this summer. In the past 24 months, Cypress Gardens has encountered struggles and triumphs on the road to welcoming visitors again.
“One of the things we realized with how complicated it is to actually do repairs on a wetland park—the docks and our bridges were either damaged or destroyed, and rather than just go in there and replace them, we actually had to apply for a permit with the Army Corps of Engineers to permit us to do the work,” said Berkeley County Deputy Supervisor of Administration Tim Callanan.
The deeply damaged docks are the largest reason the site has been closed for so long. Cypress Gardens’ past visitors know that the boat rides through the swamp are one of the main attractions, and without the docks, no aquatic tours are available.
As Callanan explained, the situation slowed to a crawl because of the many levels of red tape they needed to cut through.
“That was the first phase that was time consuming, and we got that approval back in October,” he said. “That’s two years after the storm.”
Once the work was permitted, docks had to be ripped out and rebuilt, and the piers were torn down because they had shifted during the storm. There was also one more hitch that halted the reconstruction process.
“So many of the buildings were damaged that it didn’t make sense for us to replace them as they were, where they were,” continued Callanan. The flood caused extensive water damage to many buildings’ interiors and exteriors. “So, what we wanted to do was called an ‘alternative or improved project,’ and when you do that, you have to get FEMA approval before you can do any work on the site.”
These “alternative or improved projects” are allowed by the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. As Callanan pointed out, a clause in the Stafford Act allows an applicant (in this case, Berkeley County) the option “to use the funds normally associated with rebuilding a structure as it was and build it in a way that is better than the previous structure with the county covering the difference in cost.” For that to happen, though, they have to gain the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s authorization.
Callanan claims that in the last three years, three separate FEMA teams have inspected Cypress Gardens.
“Up until about a month ago, we were still having FEMA go out to the site to examine the damage. And we still have not had a final decision from them on this,” he added.
The ordeal was time consuming at an administrative level, but on the ground, the team at the tourist site did all the heavy lifting. They performed a maintenance overhaul that included roofing buildings, painting gazebos, repaneling the greenhouse that contained the butterfly exhibit, clearing trails, and pruning foliage.
“As for the facilities, once done and open, it will be a vastly improved park,” said Callanan. “We’ve been taking advantage of the time we’ve had.”
Cypress Gardens volunteer Marion McKee has been with the site’s horticulture department for six years. The grounds pulled through the flood very well, she said.
“The grounds didn’t look bad at all,” added McKee. “It was the buildings that took the brunt of it.”
McKee and Cypress Gardens Director Heather McDowell said that the site was closed to staff for approximately a month because water had to drain from the area naturally.
McKee’s department has mostly had to maintain the grounds, she said, but “it’s improved along the trails” thanks to the efforts to prune the flowers.
“It’s a shame that people can’t see it,” continued McKee. “They [the roses] were beautiful in the spring and there’s nobody to see it. There’s nobody to see any of it.”
Callanan points out that, although much work has been done, not all facilities will be available to the public when Cypress Gardens reopens in late summer. The aquarium and the major events facilities, for example, will remain closed until further notice.
Cypress Gardens’ journey from devastation to renovation took almost three years. In that time, there was frustration and concern from many employees, regulations that were met, and several ongoing construction projects. But, everyone involved seems ecstatic to open the gates of Cypress Gardens once again. Hopefully, the 170-acre nature sanctuary will be back to inspiring guests far and wide very soon.
“It’s such a beautiful park,” said Callanan. “It’s such a struggle not to get people out there to see it.”
For updates on the park’s reopening date, visit https://www.cypressgardens.info.