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Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park embraces change after disaster

Friday, May 21, 2010 | 11:52 a.m. CDT

MIDDLEBROOK — In a matter of minutes, a massive torrent of water reshaped Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park more than four years ago.

But rather than shrink from it, Missouri parks officials interpret the disaster through a series of features at the restored park and visitors' center, which will host a grand reopening ceremony Saturday. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other dignitaries will be on hand to mark the occasion.

A sheltered picnic area was built on the footprint of the former superintendent Jerry Toops' home, which was washed away when AmerenUE's Taum Sauk reservoir breached in the early morning hours of Dec. 14, 2005. Toops and his family survived the ordeal.

A 1 ½-mile trail takes hikers to a perch above the 7,000-foot scour channel, where 1.3 billion gallons of water toppled trees and peeled back topsoil, exposing dolomite and granite.

Granite and dolomite boulders — including one the size of a minivan — can still be found throughout the former debris field just inside the park gates, off Highway N.

And there is no escaping the ominous orange signs throughout the park, warning visitors to evacuate to higher ground in the event of another reservoir break, or spill. Ameren has rebuilt the reservoir at its mountain hydroelectric plant.

"What happened on Dec. 14 is part of the history of the park now," said Missouri Parks Director Bill Bryan, who was lead attorney in the state's lawsuit against Ameren following the breach. "At the same time, the shut-ins — the keystone feature of the park — is still there. It is still a great place that is beloved by Missourians."

Spend a few minutes inside the park and its new Black River Center, and you'll find a treasure-trove of historic markers and exhibits that explain the park's distinctive geologic and hydrologic features, most notably the pools, chutes and potholes that make up the shut-ins.

Throughout the park, mosaics help tell the story of Johnson's Shut-Ins.

The flood damage actually provided an opportunity to redesign the 1950s-vintage park "in a way where we could apply 21st-century sensibilities to it," said Judd Slivka, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Little went to waste in rebuilding the park. Park benches were fashioned from trees toppled in the December 2005 flood. Rock from the rubble field was used in the stone facing of the visitor's center.

The park was restored using a little more than $100 million of the state's $177 million settlement with AmerenUE.

Campgrounds were moved to the Goggins Mountain area of the park, on the other side of Highway N away from the area that flooded, to reorient how the park is laid out. The state-of-the-art campgrounds opened at the end of April and feature air-conditioned cabins, equestrian campsites and free Wi-Fi in the campground store.

The old camping area inside has been converted into a sprawling day-use area.

Restoring the natural features of the park was a significant undertaking.

The state restored 4,200 feet of the East Fork of the Black River, which was blocked by a natural dam of rock, timber and reinforced steel immediately after the reservoir breach. Two boggy fen areas are starting to rebound after sediment and debris were carefully removed.

Divers helped clear out large rocks that tumbled into the shut-ins area, and the boulders were hauled away by helicopter. Cleanup crews took part in bucket brigades to rid the area of smaller debris.

Bryan, a former deputy chief of staff for then-Attorney General Jay Nixon, said he was "awestruck" when he took over as head of state parks in October and saw the improvements that had been made to the park.

Bob Kinney of Jefferson City, a former Capitol police officer, was shooting video of the shut-ins on Wednesday — the first time he's seen the park in about 15 years. "I was glad that this part didn't get ruined," Kinney said. "This is always the most interesting part of it here."

Merchants say they have been hurt by the drop in park traffic during the past 4 1/2 years. The park has been open to some limited day use, but its campground did not open until this year. In 2005 — the last full season before the reservoir breach — the shut-ins drew 235,627 people.

"The town almost died," said Donna Hentze, owner of the Black River Yacht Club on Highway 21 in nearby Lesterville.

Hentze said in the summer, the diner and gas station saw almost "nonstop traffic" of visitors and campers en route to the park. But during the past four years, they close at 2 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. They used to have eight employees, but now it's just Hentze and her husband.

In May 2006, Hentze said, soda sales alone dropped off by $1,200, meaning they sold roughly 1,000 fewer sodas.

"It's really been devastating," she said. "We're all really hopeful that this will bring the business back. It was a booming town in the summer. And now, just nothing."

Elmer Winingar, whose Lesterville store sits along Highway 21, said the park probably drives about 15 percent of his sales, and he's looking forward to the grand reopening. Tourism-related business has suffered recently, he added.

"It's kind of hard to say if it's because of the shut-ins or because of the economy," Winingar said. "Tourism is down. Gas prices falling like they are, we hope to have a good year."

 


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