Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fort Pulaski took a beating from Hurricane Matthew, but worked hard to bounce back

Water poured in from flooded dike system (NPS photo)

Saturday’s Park Day – a nationwide service project organized by the Civil War Trust – comes as Fort Pulaski National Monument nears a critical point in its recovery from last October’s Hurricane Matthew. It’s transitioning from six months of recovery to fully focusing on its mission of educating visitors about this important siege early in the war. The fort is looking for volunteers to help clear a popular trail and vegetation that morning. Joel Cadoff, spokesman and chief of interpretation, this week spoke with the Picket about the $1.8 million in damage and efforts to get the park near Savannah, Ga., back on its feet.


As the hurricane approached, its exact target unknown, the staff removed items from the floor and secured facilities. “Everybody was in pure prep mode,” Cadoff said. The park, aware that the site was susceptible to flooding, had a week before sent most of the park’s collection to Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island, south of Savannah. 

Lee drawing's (NPS)
Among the items that made the trip were drawings of wildlife on Cockspur Island by a young Robert E. Lee when he was a lieutenant stationed at Fort Pulaski, and clothing belonging to Union Brig. Gen. Quincy Adams Gillmore, in charge of the 1862 victorious siege of Pulaski.


The park was closed when Matthew made landfall on Oct. 8. The staff was at first optimistic that Pulaski had weathered the storm with minimal to moderate damage. “One of the (aerial) images showed the masonry fort surrounded by water, but the inside looked dry other than one of the pecan trees having been uprooted,” said Cadoff.

But an early inspection showed two bridges crossing the moat and leading to the fort had been washed away. (One of those wooden bridges was found just last month, several hundred yards away.)

Location of washed-away bridge
(NPS photos)

The parade ground had endured up to 18 inches of water, and the ranger office and restroom in the fort were damaged by water. “Every park feature was affected one way or the other,” said Cadoff. The visitor center and maintenance shop also received water and heating and air systems were damaged.

Some 300 trees were down across the site.

Designed by Lee, a dike system outside Fort Pulaski allowed for tide control and drainage that aided in the construction before the Civil War. The system was built to handle a 12-foot tide, but Matthew pushed in several inches more – and the water had to go somewhere. “Basically you had water pouring in.”

It could have been worse – during a storm in the 1890s, lighthouse keepers had to deal with 5 feet of water inside the brick fort.

(NPS photo)


Fort Pulaski was closed for about a month as initial cleanup began. That included everything from removing muck to clearing trees and other debris. “It wasn’t safe to have visitors,” Cadoff said. A National Park Service team came in days after Matthew left and helped do triage.

When the fort reopened in November (photo, above), only guided programs were conducted. (Visitors since then have been able to wander about, as they did before Matthew.)

The staff no longer uses office space in the fort and the only restroom is at the visitor center. The facility inside the fort won’t be replaced.


(NPS photos)

The NPS’ Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, Md., sent in a team in early March to help repair roof damage and interior flooring.

About 90 percent of the wooden floors in the casemates were displaced by Matthew. The team reset the timbers and replaced any that had rotted over the years.


When asked to rate how much the site has bounced back to what it was pre-Matthew, Cadoff gave a figure of 85-90 percent. Visitors still notice the tree losses and some trails remain closed.

One of two teams in Saturday morning’s Park Day will focus on the popular 1.-7 mile Lighthouse Trail, which goes from the visitor center, past the fort and to near the famous Cockspur Island Lighthouse.

The park will restore living history programs in the fall. A group of authentic Civil War re-enactors plans to hold a Confederate garrison event in April 2018 to help Pulaski "get back in the saddle."


Cadoff said Hurricane Matthew is a reminder that such rare storms in Georgia can come along: “It can happen, it will happen again.” He said the staff was as ready as it could be, but “there is always room for improvement.”

Was there a positive side? Cadoff believes so. Tthere has been strong moral support from those reviewing recovery updates on the park’s social media.

Seventeen staff members, who had to deal with the storm’s impact on their own homes, put in a ton of work to clean up and move Fort Pulaski forward.

“It has brought us closer together," Cadoff said.

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