Volunteers clear Central Florida trails of hurricane debris


PATRICK CONNOLLY, Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Not all heroes wear capes. Some wield chainsaws, loppers or heavy-duty push mowers – tools needed to help local trails recover from Hurricane Ian.

Members of the Florida Trail Association, SORBA Orlando and other Central Florida volunteers quickly got to work clearing every section of trail they could, though many paths remain flooded as waterways reached historic levels.

“The Econ River flooded eight feet above its previous all-time high. I saw the Econ River crossing Snow Hill Road in some sections,” said Jerry Rogers, Central Florida Trails Coordinator for the FTA. Someone kayaked the Flagler Trail bridge the other day and the top of the handrails is about two feet under water.”

However, a number of city, county and state parks are open and well on their way to recovery at a time when many are eager to get some fresh air and enjoy cooler temperatures.

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“Getting recreation in our natural areas actually helps people after stressful situations,” Rogers said. “We just want to make sure it’s safe.”

With the aftermath of Hurricane Ian and the start of hiking season, the Florida Trail Association assesses trail damage and schedules workdays, especially as the water begins to recede.

In central Florida, sections of trail that pass through South Florida Water Management District public lands and Florida State Forests are closed. This includes Charles H. Bronson, Little Big Econ, and Seminole State Forest.

Less than a week after Hurricane Ian left the Florida peninsula, FTA volunteers came together to clean up Mills Creek, a relatively dry federal property near Chuluota, and the “volksmarch trail”, the one of Wekiwa Spring’s popular hiking loops.

For trail stewards like Rogers, the biggest concern is damaged infrastructure such as boardwalks or bridges that have spent time underwater.

“We’re going to have the trees cut down, it doesn’t matter. If we have missing infrastructure, it requires more funding and time to replace it,” he said. “We didn’t have a strong wind, it was a flood. Water will recede… Trail will be repaired in due course.

A cluster of trees fell across Soldiers Creek, causing erosion on the Multi-Use Hiking and Biking Trail in Seminole County, seen Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022.

A cluster of trees fell across Soldiers Creek, causing erosion on the multi-use hiking and biking trail in Seminole County, seen Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)

The Orlando chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association oversees seven trail systems from Seminole County to Clermont and as far south as Shingle Creek.

As of press time, none of the trails have been able to reopen; at least half are still flooded with water. Trails most affected by flooding include Soldiers Creek, Shingle Creek, UCF, and Snow Hill in Little Big Econ State Forest.

Kevin Bolton, director of Adventure Cycling and volunteer with SORBA Orlando, shows his disappointment when he found the Soldiers Creek trail system underwater after Hurricane Ian.

“If we can make Markham Woods work, that will be a great track to go,” said Sue van Bernum, president of SORBA Orlando. “Mount Dora, which is maintained by the Ocala Mountain Bike Association, is partially open.”

Additionally, the Santos mountain bike trails along the Cross Florida Greenway near Ocala are open.

Soldiers Creek and Shingle Creek may open in the near future, but van Bernum is worried about setbacks after hard work building and maintaining these trails. As for the network of trails along the Econ River, that’s another story.

“Snow Hill, we might not even see it until December,” van Bernum said.

City of Orlando/Orange County Parks

Many parks maintained by the city of Orlando and Orange County have successfully reopened after Hurricane Ian.

From popular Kelly Park, home to the Rock Springs swimming and tubing track, to Lake Eola Park, many outdoor green spaces are once again open, allowing Central Floridians to get some fresh air.

“Having spaces for people to enjoy outdoor activities is critical to the well-being of our community, especially after being hunkered down for two days during a hurricane,” said Matt Suedmeyer, Orange County Parks and Recreation Director, in an email. .

Some amenities remain closed, such as swan boat rentals at Lake Eola and Moss Park Campground, which suffered flooding. The Greenwood Urban Wetlands in Orlando remain closed. Additionally, lakes and boat launches under the control of Orange County and the City of Orlando are closed until further notice.

Leu Gardens, which is a property of the City of Orlando, suffered the loss of several trees and plants during Hurricane Ian, but suffered no structural damage. Volunteers and staff worked tirelessly to clean up the grounds.

“We hope to safely and fully reopen the gardens to guests as early as Monday, October 10,” read an email from Leu Gardens. “In the meantime, all events, classes and weddings will continue to take place as planned.”

Amid the historically high waters of Seminole County Lakes and the St. Johns River, all wilderness areas in the county are closed due to storm damage and flooding.

This includes the popular Black Bear Wilderness Area, which is right along the St. Johns River.

Open parks and trails include Big Tree Park, Red Bug Lake Park, Seminole Wekiva Trail, and Cross Seminole Trail.

Since Hurricane Ian passed through central Florida, Wekiva Island has remained closed and half underwater. Carrie Vanderhoef, manager of Longwood’s outdoor bar and riverside hangout, is usually on the island seven days a week.

With more free time, she went golfing and spent a day at Sanford.

“We hang around, waiting for the water to come down,” she said. “It’s a different vibe right now and not one we like.”

Carrie Vanderhoef, Wekiva Island Manager in Longwood, shows where the river peaked and flooded the cabins on Wednesday, October 5, 2022.

Carrie Vanderhoef, Wekiva Island Manager in Longwood, shows where the river peaked and flooded the cabins on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)

Vanderhoef said water in the Wekiva River did not reach flood levels after Hurricane Irma, but levels were falling more slowly.

“It’s disheartening right now because it’s not moving fast enough,” she said. “We want to put our employees back to work. We want people to come down. We are losing money right now.

Once water levels recede, staff will pressure-clean decks and cabanas, making the destination ready for business as soon as possible.

“We’re going to play this weekend,” Vanderhoef said. “We’re hoping for a hell of a grand opening again next (weekend).”

While some of Florida’s state parks closed during Hurricane Ian, sought-after Central Florida destinations have mostly managed to reopen for guests.

After Hurricane Ian devastated central Florida, staff and volunteers worked to inspect and clean up the parks.

“The most common impacts we’ve seen are downed trees, power outages, flooding, and storm-related debris,” Florida DEP press secretary Alexandra Kuchta said in an emailed statement.

Wekiwa Springs, Blue Spring, De Leon Springs, and Lake Louisa State Parks are all open to visitors, though some activities and amenities remain off-limits. For example, water activities in Blue Spring remain closed due to flooding.

De Leon Springs State Park in Volusia County, home to the beloved Old Sugar Mill Pancake House restaurant, hopes to reopen soon but remains closed while the roof is replaced, an improvement that was underway before the hurricane.

Please check city, county, volunteer organization, and state websites for the most up-to-date information on park and trail closures.

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