MONCKS CORNER — Nearly four years ago, Heather McDowell couldn't walk in Cypress Gardens. She had to use a row boat.
The park director for the 170-acre garden and swamp was "heartbroken" when historic flooding in October 2015 closed the Berkeley County tourist attraction. There was anywhere from 1 to 4 feet of water in most of the buildings.
"I did not think that gate up front could be underwater," McDowell said. "When I came out, all I could do was cry."
But after years of paperwork, planning and preparation, Cypress Gardens is ready to reopen to the public Saturday. And the park didn't just survive, it has now thrived.
The red tape with Federal Emergency Management Agency paired with setbacks from additional weather events, such as Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Tropical Storm Irma in 2017 and a January snowstorm in 2018, made the delays inevitable.
"We didn't think we'd be closed this long," McDowell said. "We thought we'd be able to work with FEMA and insurance and get going. Almost four years is a long time."
So far, they've spent approximately $2.1 million on the project, coming from FEMA relief, insurance money and operating funds for the park. More spending may come in the future, Berkeley County Public spokeswoman Hannah Moldenhauer said.
Cypress Gardens' closure has been felt throughout the Lowcountry. The idyllic park's cypress trees have been featured in films like “The Patriot” and “The Notebook" and has brought around 50,000 visitors annually. It is a regular spot for photo shoots and weddings, too.
And with that $2 million, they've made a lot of changes.
"No more delays. No more closures. Cypress Gardens is once again open for all to enjoy," Moldenhauer said.
A giant bronze alligator and a roundabout driveway now welcome guests as they drive up to the park.
Once you pull up to the parking lot, there are 250 available spaces. Prior to the flood, there were only 100 to 150.
Those are some small things, others are more noticeable.
The redone butterfly house will feature 500 of the colorful, flying insects and has two murals painted by Berkeley County students.
The "Swamparium," the animal exhibit on site, was filled with several feet of water during the flood. Now, the interior has been completely redone and they've added a few new friends. In addition to new fish exhibits, they've also added two Savannah monitors: Large lizards native to Africa.
There's also new educational tools in the park.
Google, which has a data center in Berkeley County, has donated 100 Chromebook laptops to the park so students can use them. They also set-up Google Lens in their butterfly exhibit. Guests who download the app on their smartphone can point their camera at an insect or a plant to get an in-depth analysis of what they're looking at.
The tech company has provided free Wi-Fi throughout the park, so guests can study or use their laptops amid the nature.
'All hands on deck'
Weeks after the flood, the park’s workforce was reduced by two-thirds, leaving eight employees to care for the facilities, plants and animals. Now, there will be approximately 15 full-time employees, McDowell said.
McDowell said their hope was to have county workers do most of the renovations. Numerous departments volunteered and came out to the garden to help. Even inmates from the Berkeley County detention center have helped paint and set-up for the opening. Several were seen working in the parking lot Thursday.
"Since we've started the renovations, it has been all hands on deck from all different county departments," McDowell said. "It's been amazing."
The 2015 flood was not the first disaster the property has seen.
The park was originally part of Dean Hall, one of the Cooper River’s largest rice plantations. Cypress Gardens was created in the late 1920s and was opened to the public in 1932. Once owned by the family of Benjamin Kittredge, it was sold to the city of Charleston in 1964.
Hurricane Hugo in 1989 nearly destroyed Cypress Gardens, but the city rebuilt it and eventually turned it over to Berkeley County in 1996.
Berkeley County residents get free admission until June 30. On Saturday, the park will have the grand opening starting at 10 a.m. It's free for the public.
"Cypress Gardens has been marked with 'Closed' signs and barriers, keeping the public out," Moldenhauer said. "Thankfully, the wait is almost over, and we’re thrilled to welcome people back into, what I consider, the greatest park in our region.