To Cindy Hughes, one beachgoer’s trash is her treasure.
Her bare feet weaved through a minefield of metal and glass protruding from the earth this week at Folly Beach County Park. She occasionally bent over and plucked objects from the sand.
“See, here’s a piece of tile,” she said. “Here’s an old lock.”
Hughes, a West Ashley resident, gathered fragments of bottles, Royal China dinnerware and a copper handle that was green with age.
She plucked a metal object from the sand and inspected the organic matter clinging to it, unable to determine what purpose it once served.
“I love to come out here and walk through all of this,” the 50-year-old said. “I really feel like there had been a shipwreck in this area.”
As the Atlantic Ocean continues to reclaim the park after Hurricane Irene and other storms eroded its dunes last year, what one official called “historic junk” has risen from the changing landscape.
But while some people such as Hughes seek out and collect the refuse, others think such items and the damaged park infrastructure — septic tanks, rebar and concrete pillars — are an eyesore and a safety hazard for those who still walk the beach at the closed park.
And they say crews are not working swiftly enough to rid the rubbish from the former hunting ground for seashells and sunshine.
“I was alarmed by the way the park looked,” said Christine Wilkerson, a 57-year-old resident of the beachside community. “Somebody is going to trip over one of these things and get hurt.
“This place is sad, and it’s a shame.”
The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission vowed to hasten efforts to clean and restore the park, but its director, Tom O’Rourke, said only so much can be done.
Even after crews hauled off two truckloads of rusty car alternators, generators and corroded wheel rims last week, additional erosion has uncovered more of what lies beneath.
“Every high tide, we’ll come back the next day, and we don’t know what we’ll find,” O’Rourke said. “That stuff was there for a long, long time.
“The only permanent fix is to restore the beach, but that’s going to take time.”
Can park be restored?
How to go about that and a federal request to fund it are still very much up in the air.
O’Rourke and Folly Beach city officials met with Wilkerson in the park’s parking lot, where sand, seaweed and concrete barriers were strewn about.
Nearby, wooden poles supporting a walkway leaned. Rebar jutted from a channel recently carved through the dunes.
County officials hope that a nearly $2 million groin on the southern end of the beach and loads of dredged sand from the Folly River will bolster the shoreline, O’Rourke said. But that permitting process is lengthy, and some experts argue that a groin could be harmful in the long run.
But none of it will happen overnight. Construction won’t start until later next year, and the park won’t reopen until summer 2014, at the earliest. Mother Nature is too much of a formidable foe.
“This is all a risk,” O’Rourke said. “We blew it with our decision after the storm. We put a lot of money into this, and we didn’t save it.
“But we’re going to give it another shot.”
Mayor Tim Goodwin already sees the closure’s effect on the city. Beachgoers displaced from the park’s 230 parking spots have been driven toward the pier, creating a bottleneck in the city’s center.
“People loved this place, and it’s going to impact those people,” he said. “People are parking in places they’ve never parked before.”
Goodwin spoke of a resident who visited religiously; she parked in the same spot every day, he said. Wilkerson frequently brought a friend who suffered brain cancer; the woman found comfort in the park’s peacefulness, she said.
Hughes, the treasure seeker, depended on the park for her shell collection.
Now, the closure has forced her to walk a little farther, from a smaller beach access. She can’t find the conch shells that once filled her baskets, and “barely anything” remains of an oyster bed she once browsed.
But the park still has value, she said. It can’t be relinquished to the sea. Not yet.
“This place looks different every day,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Long ago, the junk Hughes finds intriguing could have been dumped on the barrier island or used as fill, said Rob Young, a professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on shoreline erosion.
Young, who visited the park after Hurricane Irene, said the items likely didn’t wash ashore.
“With erosion over the decades — surprise, surprise — you find it coming out on the front side of the island,” Young said. “If you can find a hubcap to a ’45 Chevy, you might be able to tell how fast it’s eroding.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.