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Holly River State Park still recovering

John McCoy
To ensure that Holly River State Park's power lines could not be taken down again by a heavy snowfall, parks officials are spending more than $1 million to run the lines underground. The work is scheduled to be completed by the park's mid-April opening day.

HACKER VALLEY, W.Va. -- For the staff of West Virginia's Holly River State Park, it's been a long, dark, cold, tough winter -- and a really expensive one, too.

The 8,101-acre Webster County park has been without power since Oct. 29, when trees snapped by Superstorm Sandy's wet, heavy snowfall took down the park's overhead electrical lines. Contractors are restoring service, but officials say it's touch-and-go as to whether the park will be ready for its scheduled mid-April opening.

"We're still taking reservations for cabin rentals, camping spaces and picnic shelter rentals," said Brad Reed, district administrator for the Division of Natural Resources' Parks Section. "But at the same time, we're also making customers aware that there's a chance [an on-time opening] might not happen."

Superintendent Ken McClintic was on the porch of his in-park residence watching the snow pile up when the park went black.

"It was 7:30 p.m. when the power went off," McClintic recalled. "I saw a flash in the sky as a transformer blew up. We've been in the dark ever since."

When power lines go down, electric-company crews are usually Johnny-on-the-spot to begin repairs. In this case, however, no electric company owned the park's power lines.

"We -- the Parks Section -- owned the power lines," Reed said. "We have that situation in a handful of our parks, primarily those located in rough terrain in really remote areas. When we have problems with the lines we own, we generally try to do our own repairs.

"But this was completely outside our ability to repair. There were no overhead power lines left. They were completely down from one end of the park to the other. Nearly every pole was sheared off. Every line was down."

Parks officials decided rather quickly to have a contractor repair the system, but the state-mandated bidding process took weeks to complete. Tri-County Electric, of Scottsdale, Pa., ultimately got the contract, and its crews started work on Jan. 7.

"So far, they've been trenching and laying conduit for the new lines," McClintic said. "Until just lately, the weather stayed pretty mild and they were able to make great progress. They've got the conduit almost laid, and their electricians are getting the buildings ready to receive the power."

Rather than risk the chance of a future snowstorm taking the lines down, parks officials decided to run them underground. The work required more than a mile of trenching and conduit-laying, and for the new lines to be connected to all the park's cabins, bathrooms, administrative buildings and campgrounds.

"It's a big contract -- more than $1 million worth of work," Reed said. "We anticipate that the majority of the cost will be covered by [the Federal Emergency Management Agency.] They've been great through both of last year's disasters, the [June] derecho [windstorm] and Sandy."

While the work is being done, the park's staff is relying on portable generators, both in the office and in the on-site residences.

Restoring power might be the most important work yet to be done, but McClintic said he and his staff have several months' worth of additional work ahead of them.

"Thousands of limbs and treetops got taken down, and those have to be cleaned up," he added. "We've been running chainsaws and a wood chipper pretty much nonstop since October. We've made some progress, but there's still so much to do."

Broken branches still litter the park's group camping site and most of the 88 individual campsites. Fallen trees still block the road to the picnic area.

"And we haven't even taken a look at the hiking trails yet. Heaven only knows what we'll find there," McClintic said.

He said he's especially concerned about what lumberjacks call "widowmakers" -- broken-off limbs that hang in treetops and fall on people.

"There are lots of them, and we have to get them down before we start letting visitors in. Some of them might be beyond our ability to do that safely. If that's the case, we might need to bring in some tree specialists."

District administrator Reed believes it might take as long as 10 to 20 years before the park's forests start to look normal again.

"The storm just ravaged the place. There's an amazing amount of damage," he said.

McClintic said the damage would be less visible after the spring green-up.

"After the leaves come on, things will start looking more normal," he said. "Holly River will still be a pretty place, but we'll have a lot of cleanup left to do. We'll get it done, one limb at a time."

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


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