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State parks recovering from derecho damage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Workers have repaired most of the physical damage state parks suffered during West Virginia's epic June 29 windstorm, but the financial damage won't be as easy to fix.

Officials said the storm has cost the park system $1.28 million so far, and the tab grows larger with each canceled visit. Ken Caplinger, chief of the Division of Natural Resources' Parks Section, said the losses stem from cleanup costs and from visitors' ruined vacation plans.

"The estimates we've supplied to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] are that we lost $503,000 in revenue just during the power outage period, and we spent an additional $750,000 for personnel and equipment to repair damage to structures and to clean up downed trees," Caplinger said.

Parks officials hope insurance and federal disaster relief funds will help them recoup some of the losses.

"We're currently working with the state's insurance company to try to collect on the revenue loss," Caplinger explained. "We think we might be able to recover our losses for the time the power was out, but losses from the storm's lingering effects can't be recovered."

Those losses continue to pile up. Caplinger said rentals of lodge rooms, cabins and campsites all are far below normal.

"We were running 1 to 1 1/2 percent below 2011 levels when the storm hit," he said. "Since the storm, we've consistently been down 15 to 20 percent. I think the storm really hammered people so badly in their private lives that they still aren't able to consider taking a vacation.

"Either they're suffering financially, or they're staying at home trying to clean up the damage they suffered to their own properties."

Caplinger said would-be visitors might also be laboring under the misconception that parks are closed or are operating in some diminished capacity.

"The truth is we're back up and operating at virtually 100 percent," he said. "Our employees did a remarkable job of clearing the debris and repairing the damage."

The storm's widespread 80-mile-per-hour winds wreaked havoc on almost every piece of property within the park system.

"We manage 49 properties, from state parks to state forests to rail-trails and wildlife management areas," Caplinger said. "Forty-eight of them suffered damage. A few structures were damaged, and a lot of trees got broken or blown down, but we were extremely fortunate that no one was killed or seriously injured."

At the time the storm struck, all of the system's campgrounds, cabins and lodges were filled with people.

"Remember, this was the weekend before the Fourth of July, and the parks were packed," Caplinger said. "We were expecting the biggest [visitation] weekend in the history of the system. Instead, people ended up going home."

He said the cleanup costs, though high, would have been much higher if parks officials had called in outside labor.

"[The cleanup] was all done by existing park staff. One of the neatest cleanup stories came from Cass [Scenic Railroad State Park]. They had trees down all over the [railroad] line. The staff there harked back to the railroad's logging days. They hooked chains to the fallen trees and used locomotives to pull the trees off the tracks. A 65-ton Shay locomotive can move a tree in a hurry."

Caplinger said most of the cleanup and repair work is done, but a couple of areas still need to be addressed.

"We're going to have to get a contractor in to repair damage to some cabins at Greenbrier State Forest, and we still have trees down on a lot of hiking trails. But we're working on those things," he added.

Agency officials aren't sure when the storm's lingering effects will fade and West Virginians return to parks in their usual numbers.

"We'll just have to wait and see," Caplinger said. "Until then, the Parks Section will have to eat some pretty hard financial cheese."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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