FRENCH CREEK, W.Va. -- At the West Virginia Wildlife Center, signs of last October's hurricane-spawned snowstorm are still painfully apparent.
Tops of large trees litter the ground. Fences to the animals' open-air habitats have been knocked askew. Exhibits sit empty, the creatures having fled.
"It was a bad time," said Gene Thorn, the center's superintendent. "We're still recovering from it, and it will be a while before things are back to normal."
The remnants of Hurricane Sandy, which became known as "superstorm Sandy," dumped 2 to 3 feet of wet, heavy snow on the Upshur County mountaintop where the center is located, snapping 80-year-old trees like matchsticks.
"Those were old-growth trees -- big trees -- and a lot of them fell on exhibits. Most of our enclosures took a hit in one way or another," Thorn said. "It looked like we'd taken a hit from a World War II bombing raid."
No animals were killed, but most of the center's birds of prey escaped when falling limbs tore open the netting that formed the roofs of their exhibits.
"We lost 12 birds -- a golden eagle, barred owl, a red-shouldered hawk, two red-tailed hawks, a great horned owl, a Cooper's hawk, a black vulture and four ring-necked pheasants," Thorn said.
"The pheasants will be easy to replace, but the birds of prey won't. They were rehab birds that couldn't be released back to the wild. Now we'll have to wait for birds to become available and hope we can get them. The one that really hurts is the golden eagle. Those don't come along very often."
The center's bald eagle is still in its exhibit, but only because it has a bad wing and couldn't fly away. The only other raptor that didn't escape was a tiny screech owl.
"Fortunately, we didn't lose any mammals," Thorn said. "But we had to scramble to make sure that didn't happen. The fence to one corner of the bear enclosure got flattened, and the mountain lion pen suffered considerable damage. Our staff did great work to make sure none of our large predators got loose."
Thorn said the damage to the mountain lion enclosure occurred in a portion of the fencing that was too high for the cats to jump over.
"We got lucky there," he said.
All the predator pens have electric wires strung inside the chain-link fencing to discourage climbing, and Thorn believes the animals' memories of getting zapped helped prevent them from taking advantage of the damaged barriers.
"We were without power here for more than a week," Thorn said. "We ran generators to keep things going."
Workers have since carted away dozens of truckloads of fallen limbs and sawn-up tree trunks from literally hundreds of damaged trees. Thorn said "The Loop" -- the roughly circular paved path that visitors follow while touring the exhibits -- has been cleared, and the center is officially open.
"We're still planning to have our Groundhog Day celebration," he added. "We're probably going to do it a little differently, maybe at the amphitheater instead of the groundhog pen, but we'll get it done."
The center might not stay open long, however. Thorn said fencing contractors have been bidding on the repair job, but added that the work couldn't begin until after the special vinyl-coated chain-link fencing can be made and shipped to the contractor.
"Apparently brown vinyl-coated fencing isn't an off-the-shelf item," he said. "It has to be special-ordered, and takes four to six weeks to be delivered. It will take another two weeks to do the actual work, and an additional week after that to put new netting on top of the bird and raccoon pens."
Thorn said the center would be closed while the fence repairs are being made.
"We'll do well to have everything done by April 1, which is our usual date to be open full steam," he added.
He called the snowstorm "one of the two worst things ever to hit the Wildlife Center."
"The staff tells me there was a windstorm in 2001 that did a lot of damage, but I can't imagine it being worse than this."
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmc...@wvgazette.com.