Even as state crews reconnected power and rented campground spaces to tourists as soon as cleared of storm debris, the head of Louisiana State Parks facilities and operations surveyed a forest of downed trees and said his biggest concern was how they would interpret this new landscape.
“This is going to be a major change to the ecosystem,” said Clifford Melius, deputy assistant secretary at the Louisiana Office of State Parks.
His concerns are both immediate – “Do we repair the boardwalks when there’s no swamp to walk over?” And long term – “Sunlight eventually will dry up the wetlands,” making obsolete all Tickfaw’s signs and exhibits describing the ecosystems of cypress-tupelo swamps and bottomland hardwood forests.
Tickfaw State Park is 1,200 largely undeveloped acres in an isolated pocket of Livingston Parish.
Until August 29 Tickfaw was covered in the shade of a tree canopy so thick that the sky was rarely seen. Hurricane Ida’s eye wall knocked down about 80% of the trees, mostly in mud that the 30-foot arm of an excavator couldn’t reach from the roads that run like fingers through the swamp.
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But Louisiana State Parks are all about regeneration.
For the most of the past 13 years, when state government faced annual deficits, budgets were cut. Higher education and healthcare, rightfully so, received most of the attention for having their appropriations lowered year after year.
But the annual state give to the parks also were whacked. Between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2017, Louisiana reduced annual state general fund contributions by 34% from $29.7 million to $19.7 million.
State parks set aside improvements and delayed maintenance. Chicot State Park, near Ville Platte, had to close money-making campsites when bathhouses became unusable. The parks ended each fiscal year in the red as fewer people came.
After years of struggle, the 21 State Parks ended Fiscal Year 2021 on June 30 with the highest number of visitors in memory – 1.5 million – and 11 of the parks actually made money. Relying mostly on fees, the system was $1.5 million in the black as of June 30.
Then, came Ida. Seven parks were closed because of severe damage.
Though assessments are still ongoing, parks officials are estimating about $4 million in damage – or roughly a third of what’s available in a fund dedicated to repairs and improvements that gets its money primarily from a portion of the fees generated by the parks.
Melius acknowledges the rough path state parks have tread recently with an “it is what it is” shrug.
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But he’s a true believer in allowing residents and tourists to experience quintessential Louisiana scenes of nature that are so hard to get to they would remain unseen in person but for the parks. Melius said that’s why he doesn’t dwell on the cascade of recent problems. Instead he talks about the many sunrises and sunsets watched from the Fontainebleau State Park beach to get a sense of the angles cabin porches have to sit for the best views. “We didn’t just throw ‘em up. A lot of thought goes into it,” Melius said.
With not enough state support to pay for operations, parks rely on attracting visitors. That means the longer the parks are closed, the deeper in debt they go.
Melius wants the parks reopened as quick as possible and that means short-circuiting the long ponderous path of paperwork and congressional approvals that delays recovery for months.
The parks system expanded its “fix-up” team, which once rushed from one malfunction to another to get it going until the contractors could make permanent repairs. Recently, the state hired skilled workers, electricians, plumbers and the like. On-site employees were recruited.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency eventually will reimburse the Ida expenses. But in the meantime, Melius is using staff.
For instance, high water from Ida knocked out the air conditioning facility at Fontainebleau, near Mandeville. A few years ago, the state would have had to hire contractors, which means a bidding process.
“And during all that time I have to keep the park closed because I can’t air condition the buildings,” Melius said. It’s not only a comfort issue but a mold suppression necessity.
Need a weekend getaway or just a day away from post-Ida cleanup?
With 270,970 visitors for the fiscal year ending June 30, Fontainebleau is the state’s most popular recreation area – drawing more visitors than the next two most popular facilities combined: Bogue Chitto, near Franklinton, and Poverty Point, near Epps.
Melius sent in the staff. They replaced the unit allowing the park to reopen in two days at a cost of about $2,500 rather than $10,000 or so and several weeks of delay. “In-house saved us money and we didn’t have to wait on contractors to come in and do it,” Melius said.
Similarly, parts of the parks are reopening as staff clears the debris, rather than waiting for everything to be done.
The Grand Isle State Park, which is within sight of where the eye Hurricane Ida came ashore, was fixed up enough to allow residents of the barrier island to park travel trailers while working on their homes. Even before electricity was restored at Bayou Segnette State Park, near Westwego, people made homeless by the storm were allowed to camp there and at St. Bernard State Park near Braithwaite.
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On Friday, just about every official from the area attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the restored beach and new fishing deck at Cypremort Point State Park, about 26 miles south of New Iberia.
“With staycations being one of the major messages to people in Louisiana, we wanted to make sure our state parks were more appealing to all visitors – both from Louisiana and out of state,” said Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, whose Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism includes the Office of State Parks.
At Tickfaw, most of the interpretative centers, bath houses and cabins remain closed. But Tickfaw started renting camp sites as they soon as they were cleared off.
Retirees Gary and Ginger Templeton, from West Monroe, rented one of the 11 campsites available on a recent Friday. Most of the sites in their circle were still being worked on so instead of birds and alligators, the scene was primarily backhoes and excavators.
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Initially the Templetons wanted to go to Grand Isle but couldn’t. They made their reservations through the state parks online website.
Still, they didn’t mind all the work going on as they rode their bicycles on the roads that are just a little bit higher than the swamps.
“If you stay on the roads, you’re safe. But I think that was true when trees covered everything,” Ginger Templeton said.
“This is definitely a different look, an historic look really,” her husband Gary added.