WEBSTER SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — While homes and businesses in this east-central West Virginia mountain town escaped major damage from last June’s epic flooding, its beloved community park, located on a 7-acre island in the Elk River, was submerged, scoured, battered with debris and buried in silt.
Baker’s Island Recreation Area is Webster County’s best known and most used park. Among its amenities are an Olympic-size swimming pool, the county’s sole regulation baseball field, basketball courts, picnic pavilions, a playground, a paved walking trail that circles the island, a kayak and canoe launch site, a concessions stand, a stage for live music performances and a large open-sided structure that houses competition in the Webster Springs Woodchopping Festival, which draws the world’s top timber sport competitors and more than 12,000 fans here every Memorial Day weekend.
The two feet of roiling floodwater that covered Bakers Island last June 24 washed away nearly 600 feet of shoreline, including the boat launch site and much of the walking trail, while silt and mud filled the swimming pool and buried the baseball park and basketball courts. A footbridge that provided pedestrian access to the island from downtown Webster Springs was demolished by waterborne debris and 30 picnic tables were swept down the Elk.
“All totaled, there was about $1 million worth of damage to the park,” said Webster Springs Mayor Don McCourt.
As the floodwaters receded and the degree of damage to the island park became evident, McCourt and a quickly mustered army of volunteers and city maintenance workers saw that they had their work cut out for them, but wasted no time in beginning the process of cleaning up and rebuilding.
“We didn’t know whether or not we would get money from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to pay for the damage, but we did know we had a park that people really used and took a lot of pride in that needed to get back to where it was,” McCourt said, as he clicked through a series of photos of the flood and its aftermath on his laptop in his City Hall office. “Two days after the flood hit, we got to work,” he said. “We did it ourselves. In 35 days, we had things cleared away enough to be ready to start rebuilding.”
After meeting with school officials (Webster County High School uses the park’s baseball field for its home games), Little League and Senior League leaders and other park users to set priorities and get input on clean-up and repair strategies, an engineer was consulted and a preliminary work plan drafted.
“Once we had a plan, we started going after donations and free labor,” McCourt said. “We bummed everything we could think of to get things moving.”
Area contractors and heavy equipment operators volunteered the use of their earth moving gear with the understanding that they may or may not be reimbursed, depending on how FEMA ruled on whether the donated work met their guidelines. The mayor was among the volunteer heavy equipment operators clearing mud and debris from the park.
“I don’t mind getting my hands dirty to help the park,” he said. “I played ball there when I was a kid.” Before the flood, he said, “I was dragging the field after each game to keep it in shape.”
Fortunately, the 2016 high school baseball and softball seasons were completed before the June flood, giving the city time to repair and reseed the playing surface and install a new fence during the off-season. Workers are now scrambling to replace a ballfield concession stand and a dugout that were destroyed in the flood.
“This season’s opening game is one month from today, but we’ll have everything ready to go by then,” McCourt said on Wednesday.
After volunteers and city workers cleared mud and silt from the Baker’s Island pool and then repaired or replaced water filtering and circulating equipment, the pool opened for one day at the end of last season as both a test run and a reminder to area children that it will remain a part of their future. As it turned out, the pool leaked like a sieve.
“We were losing 5,000 to 6,000 gallons a day,” McCourt said, due apparently to earth and stone supporting one corner of the pool washing away during the flood, causing the structure to resettle in a manner that damaged plumbing. “The engineer’s sending a plumber up to take a look at it and come up with a solution, but we’ll have it open for all of this year’s season.”
McCourt said FEMA has approved funding to repair the pool, replace the walking trail, and build a new pedestrian bridge to the park, which can also be reached by car by crossing an undamaged bridge off W.Va. 20.
“The new bridge will be arched, so it won’t have a support pier in the river for flood debris to pile up against, like the old bridge did,” the mayor said. “It will also be made out of concrete and be wide enough for two wheelchairs to cross it from different directions.”
In some ways, McCourt said, Baker’s Island will be in better shape this year than it was before the June flood.
“We used a lot of bleach and six to eight pallet-loads of lime, and a lot of help from donors and volunteers who were anywhere from 10 to 70 years old,” said the mayor. “FEMA was tough, but it was fair with us. Now, thanks to everyone coming out to help, we’re on our way back.
“I think it may have made us stronger as a community.”