Cypress Gardens not ready for guests 6 months after flood, has plans to partially reopen this summer

County spokesman Michael Mule, left, and deputy supervisor Tim Callanan inspect the damage to the docks at Cypress Gardens after flooding last year left them unsafe to use. They said the tourist attraction can’t open until the docks are fixed since that is the main reason visitors come to Cypress Gardens. Photo taken Thursday, March 31, 2016 at Cypress Gardens. Paul Zoeller/Staff

MONCKS CORNER — The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing and gators are sunning themselves, but there are no visitors at Cypress Gardens to see all the natural beauty of spring.

Officials hope that will change soon.

The Berkeley County-owned tourist attraction has been closed for six months, ever since the historic rain and flooding that washed through the lower part of the state in early October.

The park, which has drawn 50,000 visitors annually, includes a 170-acre swamp garden originally part of Dean Hall, one of the Cooper River’s largest rice plantations.

It has been featured in national magazines, television shows and movies, including the films “Swamp Thing,” “The Notebook” and “The Patriot.”

“We hoped to be reopened by now, but it’s been a slow and challenging process,” said Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan. “Still, we stand by our (October) statement: When this thing is opened up, it’s going to be substantially better than it was even before the storm. That’s the goal we are trying to reach.”

Officials hope to reopen at least part of the site this summer.

County spokesman Michael Mule said that while the county would like to reopen all the damaged buildings at the same time, “it appears to be unlikely.”

The boat launch where visitors once climbed into flat-bottomed boats to tour among bald cypress and tupelo trees now pitches toward drained swampland marked off by yellow caution tape. The dirt-and-gravel support underneath washed away, as did parts of the 3-mile trail system through the wetlands.

“We absolutely need the boat dock rebuilt,” Callanan said. “The swamp itself and the boat tours are the primary attraction.”

The rental boats also were ruined by the storm and have to be replaced.

The floodwater damaged every building at the popular tourist destination except the ticket booth and classroom building. At least a foot of water collected in most park buildings, Director Heather Graham said. Carpet, tile and walls are being replaced, as are ceilings that grew mold after roof leaks.

In late October, the workforce was reduced by two-thirds, leaving eight employees to care for the facilities, plants and animals. The layoffs will save the county about $250,000 through June.

Meanwhile, the total damage is estimated at about $10 million, Mule said, and it has taken a while to settle insurance claims.

“Even though we are going on about six months now, last week we received our first insurance checks,” Callanan said. “People think you’re not doing anything because they don’t see any progress, but this has been nearly a full-time job.”

County officials have been slogging their way through required paperwork and meeting with local, state and regional officials to make sure the repairs are funded by insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said. Tax money is not being spent, Mule said.

“You have to show them what the facility was like essentially the day before the storm,” Callanan said. “They can argue that you want to get that fixed, but that was not caused by the storm. Then we have to go back into our records and look for pictures or anything we have.”

Officials even enlisted the help of couples who had weddings at the site to provide photos to prove that the facility was in good shape prior to the storm, Callanan said.

The proposal to rebuild the dock will go out to bid as quickly as possible, he said.

In addition to the dock and boats, the butterfly and bird exhibits, both of which escaped major damage, will be among the first part to reopen. Temporary bathrooms likely will be in place initially.

The second phase will include the visitor center, nature center buildings and permanent bathrooms.

The current restrooms, built in the 1940s, are two of the original five buildings on the site, and their replacements must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

The conference facilities, a popular site for weddings, suffered the most damage and will reopen last. In Dean Hall, the special-events building, the lowest 4 feet of walls have been stripped down to the studs.

The flooding was just the latest in a series of setbacks Cypress Gardens has suffered, and it happened just as the park was beginning to turn a profit.

A train hit the Cypress Gardens Road Bridge in April 2014, temporarily closing the most direct route to Cypress Gardens.

“Even though we lost three months last year, we had the best year admission revenue-wise and wedding facility-wise that we’ve had in at least the last 10 years,” Callanan said.

Berkeley County took over operations from the city of Charleston in 1996.

In 2008, critics called for the attraction to close after it finished the year $800,000 in debt. A year later, the county closed the reptile exhibit and shifted the focus to history. The Heritage Museum and Heirloom Garden was added to showcase items from the plantation’s slave settlement.